I met Daryl in a poor neighborhood in Oakland, California. He was homeless and pushing a shopping cart full of pirated DVDs that he was selling. Napoleon Dynamite was only $2.00.
When I encounter certain populations of people, I struggle with a blasted sense of superiority. I hate admitting that, but I know it exists because I recognize paternalism when I feel it in me. Paternalism is that thing that says, "Gee, that poor soul is so much needier than me, I should do something." This is different than compassion. Compassion says, "There's a human being just like me, made in God's image, and suffering." The compassionate make no distinction between themselves and the object of their compassion. Their action comes from a sense of identification with the person in need, not a sense of condescension.
When I stopped to talk to Daryl I made up my mind not to condescend. I wanted to treat him as I would one of the college students or InterVarsity staff with whom I work. Daryl was a believer, though he had the classic smell I have learned to identify with alcoholics. He worked pretty hard at generating a sale. But when he saw I wasn't really ready to buy a pirated copy of Napoleon Dynamite, he seemed content to just talk. After chatting a few minutes I asked if I could pray for him. I realize this could be done with a condescending attitude, but it's the kind of thing I do with lots of people after chatting without "praying down," if you know what I mean - as if their issues somehow make them less a person than my issues.
Daryl didn't answer my question. He simply bowed his head and held his palms open.
I prayed for Daryl. I prayed for him just like he was a seminary graduate. "God, thanks for Daryl. Thanks for the gift you have made him to this world and to this neighborhood. Increase his ministry. Give him strength for today. Pour out the gifts of evangelist, teacher and prophet on Daryl. Use him to establish your kingdom in this neighborhood. Build your church through Daryl, God!"
When I stopped praying I looked up. Daryl's eyes were still closed and his head bowed. Tears were rolling down his cheeks. "Damn!" He whispered under his breath. "I needed that."
I guess you know your prayer hit the mark when someone swears in gratitude after it.
When I am around those who are uneducated, poor, drunk, or drug addicted, I fight with that inner temptation to place myself above them. I fight the prayer that comes from a ministry of condescension rather than the prayer that comes from a ministry of compassion, esteeming and dignifying the person as somebody who is, in essence, just like me.
When I can do that consistently, I'll be a lot more like another homeless man I know - who, though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, just so he could stand alongside us in an act of perfect compassion without a hint of condescension.