Some of my favorite people in the world are hated by their neighbors and countrymen. My love for them began when almost 10 years ago my family accepted an invitation to drink coffee inside a Roma family’s house in North Macedonia, changing my family forever.
We were standing on a dead-end alley in a Roma gypsy village trying to figure out what to do. Sami, the man of the house, had just invited our family of four to join his family inside. The shelter from the snow seemed like a good idea, but we didn’t know what we would be walking into. We were there as missionaries, but taking our children into a stranger’s home from a culture with a reputation for being liars, cheats, and thieves seemed like too much to ask.
Before we could change our minds, we walked inside. We found that Roma, even though they are among the poorest people in Europe, largely uneducated and unemployed, and struggle with generational sins, are also more hospitable than Southerners. They are loyal, kind, and generous people. We learned from their example to slow down and enjoy people. We learned that much of the human’s experience transcends culture, language, and nationality. Our fears were informed by reputation, but our relationships were formed with real people.
Seeing the vulnerable as people
In an age of internet vitriol and polarization, our opinions of others are often influenced by the loudest voices on social media. We choose our own tribe and platform instead of leaving our comfort zone to serve and learn about others. But that’s not the example we have from Jesus.
Jesus left the glory of heaven to put himself into the proximity of the hurting, to the vulnerable, to the marginalized because he loved with a perfect love. He knew them when he was knitting them in their mother’s womb and when he died for them. The gospel calls us to love people as Jesus did. He was compassionate toward the real needs of people and sought to help them, but he also always saw their ultimate need. He offered living water and the bread of life.
The vulnerable aren’t an abstract idea; they are people. We can’t enter into their lives until we “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13) to the feast. In his commentary on Luke, Philip Ryken wrote, “Jesus would have us do this because he wants us to have his heart for people in need—the same heart he had for us when he gave his life for our sins. The guest list he gives us—the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame—is the guest list of his own grace. These are the very people Jesus came to save.”
To help our children “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause” (Isa. 1:17), they need to spend time with the widows, orphans, and the oppressed. We need to rub shoulders with people whose lives are different from ours. We need to develop friendships with the elderly and the single moms and the refugees.
From far away, it is easy to imagine all sorts of reasons the vulnerable are in terrible situations. But when we get close, we are confronted with their humanity, and it is easy to see the similarities and realize there is no category of them and us. We learn that we laugh and cry at the same things, that our needs for love and care are the same. We learn that people who are different from us have so much to teach us and offer us. From up close, we can see that many of our blessings have nothing to do with us but have everything to do with a sovereign God who works his purposes all over the earth.
If we want to raise children to value the full scope of life—to see the humanity, the image of God, in every person—we need to consider what relationships we are prioritizing. The way we plan our family’s time and schedules communicates a lot about our values. If we only spend time in social circles and activities where everyone looks the same as we do and comes from similar homes as ours, we are only telling our children to love all types of people, not teaching them to do so.
My friend Abbey’s parents are a beautiful example of teaching their children to intentionally love others. They took their children to serve on a reservation across the country every summer for years, igniting a love of missions in Abbey’s heart that led her to spread the gospel in Roma gypsy villages after graduating from college. They also adopted a childless widow as their family’s grandma and were faithful to her for over 20 years until her death.
One of the most influential activities I did as a child was serving as a student helper in a special needs room when I was in fifth grade. I spent a few hours each week helping the teachers of children with autism and Down’s Syndrome and cerebral palsy. Learning the students’ names and what made them laugh or cry made me love them. Before I started, they were the students in my school that everyone stared at; as their helper, they became my friends.
As we consider what activities will fill in our calendars, we need to remember that more than any activity, relationships will change us.
I have seen how my children’s participation in soccer and gymnastics and other activities has helped mature them in various ways. But when they look back on their childhood, I think the time they spent with refugees, visiting with our elderly neighbors, playing with children who speak different languages, and sitting around our dinner table with people from diverse backgrounds will prove to be more instrumental.
At the end of the day, if my kids have athletic scholarships or can play three instruments or can build award-winning robots but are unconcerned about the plight of widows and orphans, then their childhood schedules were insufficient. I want them to look with compassion at the homeless, the refugees, and the incarcerated. These affections can be developed now.
As we begin to leave behind the lazy days of summer and adjust to our fall schedules, we need to make sure that our families have the margin for developing relationships with people outside of our neighborhoods, cultures, and immediate peer groups. As we consider what activities will fill in our calendars, we need to remember that more than any activity, relationships will change us. They will change our children. They take abstract ideas of who people are and inform our hearts with the truth about others and ourselves—that we are all created in the image of God and are all in need of a sinless savior.