by Mike Carman
When we began our Jobs for Life courses at a local shelter a few years ago, one of the first questions we heard was, “Are you guys really coming back?” When we assured them that we were and asked why they posed that question, they replied, “Because other groups have come here recently, given us stuff, had their pictures taken with us and told us they’d be back. But they never returned. So we figured you were the same.” We quickly realized the distrust that had been sown by these visiting groups, and why these residents were so averse to letting us into their lives. We committed ourselves to being there in force each week and showing them by our consistent presence that we really did care. And that we were in for the long haul. Before our eight weeks together was completed, these people knew they were loved, that they had value and that we believed in them.
That understanding was not gained through the program or our teaching. It came because our people kept hammering away, constructing bridges that connected them relationally with those at the shelter. Some residents there were more than happy to mirror the efforts that they saw. Others not so much. For them, we did the heavy lifting and continued to build. We worked tirelessly to develop meaningful relationships that demonstrated our authenticity, and it paid off with almost everyone there.
Today we often speak of building bridges with and for those we would like to reach, those who might benefit from interaction or relationship with others. We see those on “the other side” and we want to come closer so we might understand them better, and they might understand us, as well. We know that a connection is valuable, and often we sense our responsibility to initiate it. By building a bridge.
As someone who has spent much of my life working with those “on the margins,” people who are often on the fringes of our culture and community, who don’t fit and therefore are too easily overlooked and underserved, I’ve given much effort to being a builder of relational bridges, and I have encouraged others to do the same. But it was only recently that I made what should have been a pretty obvious observation about all this: that as we commit to building bridges with those around us, we often do so with an unspoken, even unconscious assumption. We assume that as we work to create this connection, those with whom we’re trying to connect want it as much we do, and they are working as diligently at it as we are. That being the case, we should ultimately meet somewhere in the middle of our construction efforts. But if we don’t see that other side working as hard as we are and making equal effort, we may very well believe they don’t want it as badly. And since it doesn’t look like we’re going to meet each other halfway, we abandon our efforts and take our tools and materials to another bridge-building site that we think might have greater potential for success.
What we fail to recognize is that when we are working with people who have experienced trauma, exclusion, catastrophe or even the results of poor decision-making, we are dealing with those for whom qualities such as dignity, self-worth, and trust are significant issues. If they struggle to find value in their own lives or to think positively of themselves, they may doubt our reasons for wanting to connect with them. If others have looked past them, why wouldn’t we? Therefore, they may be reticent or not know how to construct “their side” of the bridge with us.
Understanding that kind of damaged relational dynamic can motivate us to move past the “halfway mark” of our bridge, and to keep on building connection and friendship, even to the other side. We may have to build most or all that bridge so that we can take the person there by the hand and help them take their initial steps onto it. It may be that our action to continue faithfully, even when our expectations are unmet, becomes the impetus that allows that person to believe that we really care, that we are genuine and that we mean what we say about wanting to connect with them. It may allow them to lay aside years of hurt and distrust and begin to believe that they really are worth caring about. Because they are.
This kind of bridge-building attitude should not surprise us. Those of us who follow Jesus understand his commitment to build in this very way. He didn’t come to earth and challenge us to meet him halfway. He didn’t give up on us when we failed to understand his actions or take him at his word. Quite the opposite! The Scriptures said that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. While we were still his enemies, separated from and at odds with him, he built that connection all the way to where we were and invited us to walk with him. To develop a relationship with him. To live with him, listen to him and trust him. He invested in us because even though we may have considered ourselves undeserving, he proclaimed that we were. And he proved it by using two pieces of wood to construct a bridge to take us from death to life.
Who is that person in your life that needs your bridge-building skills right now? For whom do you need to demonstrate your care and compassion by extending yourself to build, even beyond the halfway point, to create a relational connection, and with it the potential for reaffirmed dignity, renewed hope and possible healing? Will you keep on building, even if you have to do some heavy lifting and invest more time and effort than you may have originally anticipated? The needs are many, the stakes are high and the builders are few.
And someone is waiting on the other side for you.