There is some comfort in distance from many things: a water treatment plant, a slaughterhouse, a tannery and a host of other such unpleasantness. A proper distance and staying upwind serves us well in such situations. There is also some comfort in a sort of emotional distance, too. Sending money to help the lepers of India seems a less distressing arrangement than living in their midst, seeing their sores and watching the progression of the disease. I find that tucking a check into an envelope and mailing it to UNICEF or The Smile Train or any of a number of such charities rather less distressing than personal delivery. In all truth, I have had very little significant actual contact with the truly poor, the genuinely impoverished.
I like that distance. I like the avoidance. I like the convenience. I like the tiny bit of satisfaction in knowing that I am helping poor children, the diseased, or the impoverished without the contamination of their lifestyles, their personalities, their frustrating lack of sharing of my devoutly middle-class Americanism. I can sidestep the homeless on the streets of Saint Joseph or on the sidewalk in Chicago. I can walk by them on Bourbon Street without making eye contact.
But what happens when I lose the convenience of distance? What happens when the homeless person I meet is actually someone I know? What happens when someone in my church loses her apartment? What do I do when I find out that she and her teenage son are living in their car?
That comfortable anonymity dissipates. The distance is gone and I am confronted with the incredibly close and very loud reality that my younger sister and even younger brother in Christ are homeless. I cannot shelter my conscience nor spare my convictions from the reality that whatever I do NOT do for the least of these, I do NOT do for Christ. Nor do I have the easing satisfaction of knowing that my house is too small, too crowded, too dilapidated to share with someone else. It is large, spacious and rather well heated.
Will I stand before Christ and before those who do share their cardboard comforts, their makeshift lives and their scrounged sustenance and explain to them that I was too afraid, too embarrassed, too oblivious to take the risk of compassion?
When that sweet pleasant distance suddenly evaporates, we are then compelled to look and see our faith, our love and our obedience stripped down to its bareness, naked as a winter wind. We see the vague reflection of our genuine spirit steaming the mirror like breath in a car parked behind the laundromat on a frozen night.