I had an interesting experience recently.
My son’s pre-k class was having a “family night.” These are times in which parents are invited to come and see the kids sing a few songs, as well as see some activities that the class has been working on. I honestly wasn’t super excited about going, but I put on some khakis, threw on a polo, and off we went.
The first thing I noticed is that there were only four kids there out of a total of sixteen in his class. Evidently, most of the parents didn’t think this was an important event to attend. The second thing I noticed is that I was the best-dressed person in the room. I was a little surprised by this at first because I thought I was dressed fairly normal for an event at a school. I wasn’t wearing a tie. The polo-type shirt was actually untucked. But, yet, as I made my way to a table where two parents were sitting, I immediately noticed that they were dressed much more “casually.” At the table was the father of one of the boys and the mother of another student, a girl. The father was dressed in a somewhat ragged t-shirt and shorts. Across the table the mother of the girl was also dressed in a–how should I frame this?–a well-worn t-shirt and also some shorts.
After briefly saying hi to both of them, I noticed what my problem was.
Let me take a detour for a moment.
How do you converse with people who you don’t know? If you meet someone on a plane, for example, and you happen to strike up a conversation with someone, one of the first questions that people ask is this: So what do you do? Have you ever noticed that? Or perhaps you’re at a party or a gathering of some type. There are people that you don’t know. After learning their name, you might ask, “So, John, what do you do here in the area?” If it’s not the first or second question it’s almost certainly in the top five.
So there I was at this table at school, and it hit me that to ask that question might actually cause them embarrassment. Because what if they didn’t actually have a job? Or they might say, “oh, I do ____. What do you do?” And I’d answer, “I’m a pastor at the local mega church here in Berrien Springs.” I wouldn’t actually say that, but that’s how I feel it would come across.
After I got back from the event I began to reflect a little more on the issue. How does one connect with and converse with people who clearly are different from a socio-economic standpoint?
To get some perspective on the issue I decided to call my friend Anthony WagenerSmith. He’s the pastor of Compass Communities Church in Port Charlotte, Florida. A large number of the people who attend his church plant are people who are homeless and poor. Some live in tents in a field nearby. Needless to say, he has experience ministering to this demographic.
Here’s a few pointers/questions that he mentioned:
1. Don’t say or ask anything that will highlight the difference between you and them. At first this just seems like common sense. “I would never do that,” you might think. But we often unknowingly do that in our conversation. The whole “what do you do” question is a prime example. It highlights an economic disparity between the two. He also mentioned to be careful with conversation that highlights educational disparity. So questions like “So where did you go to university?” would probably be out as well.
2. Ask them what they like about the community.
3. Ask what they do for fun or for a hobby.
4. Ask about kids. That’s always a safe one.
All in all it was a great experience. I did end up conversing some, but if I would have had these questions I would had felt free to go deeper.
[image by franeau]