The Beauty Within: Helping the Poor Often Means Looking Past an Ugly Exterior

Recently a friend sent me one of those broadcast emails with the sarcastic subject line "Detroit is Making a Comeback." The message contained nine photos presumably taken in Motor City. None was flattering. They showed business signs with misspellings and grammar mistakes like "We open" and "Closed--Out of Meet." Some were offensive: a fat woman with the words "Child Support" tattooed across her buttocks, a second woman wearing large earrings that said "Trust No Bitch."

Windshield sticker in Detroit

There were more, but I'll spare you the details. A comment introducing the pictures read, "Corrupt politics, handouts, and dysfunctional family units will get you this in a short while."

I can't tell you exactly what led to Detroit's monumental problems, although corrupt politics and drugs certainly played major roles. I do know, however, that similar photos could have been taken in numerous U.S. cities -- Camden, for example, or New York or Oakland. In the coal country of West Virginia, although the citizens portrayed there would be white. The Detroit residents shown were all black. Most people of sufficient means seldom encounter the poor of any race, because we don't venture into impoverished neighborhoods.

I've spent time in Detroit as part of my search for people and organizations that are doing exemplary service work. I've seen the blight and hopelessness. But I've also met people there who are working with the poor -- and in the process creating miracles. This makes me wonder what qualities they have that the rest of us lack.

The answer, I've learned, is empathy, along with the willingness to look past the ugliness until they don't see it.

Empathy is in particularly short supply in these times of a widening gap between rich and poor. As the psychologist Daniel Goleman noted in an October 2013 New York Times column, before you can feel empathy for others, you must try to understand their pain.

That's incredibly difficult to do, especially when dealing in stereotypes. The ugliness portrayed in the Detroit photos is not uncommon in American society. What do most of us do when confronted with it? Hold our noses and turn away. I'm guilty of this too.

On a trip to Detroit I spent a couple of days with the Rev. Faith Fowler, a Methodist minister and the executive director of Cass Community Social Services, a charity that's working to create an oasis of safety and prosperity in Detroit's notorious Cass Corridor. Empathy is one of Rev. Fowler's guiding principles. Employing humor is a close second.

Fowler's staff and volunteers turn abandoned buildings into housing for the homeless, offer care and training to mentally disabled people, clean up trash, create jobs, and make lives whole again. They accomplish all this with ingenuity and hard work. But above all else, they take time to see the people inside even the least attractive bodies -- their worthiness, and their gorgeous human spark. Fowler and her colleagues continually remind their clients of the inner beauty that the clients don't see in themselves. This simple kindness, along with a well-run program, changes lives.

There's no doubt I'd be stunned if confronted by an overweight woman with "child support" tattooed on her buttocks. Why would anyone stoop to that, much less wear her pants so low that the words can be seen? I'm working to reach the point where my first reaction isn't, "How disgusting," but rather, "Hmmm . . . I wonder what that's about?" What makes that person happy or sad? Who loves her? What are her strengths? And is there anything I'm being called to do to serve her gracefully?

This is in no way easy. But above all else, selfless service is a spiritual practice. It begins with changes in me.

Cass Community's staff and volunteers turn junked tires and other trash into jobs.