There’s that person that hangs out at the back of the church.
Quiet. Different. Alone. They stand back and watch as everyone greets their friends and families with smiles on their faces. Everyone around them is either bowed deep in conversation or sharing an open laugh.
They stand there, looking on, and wishing. Wishing for friends to light up at the sight of them. Wishing for family to come greet them in a warm embrace. Wishing for the practical things in life that a supportive community offers.
The thing is, they stand and wish because they do not have. They stand and wish because their family is not there. They stand and wish because their experiences of family were fraught with yelling, hard words, cold silences, or even abuse. The things that come easy to us; the close relationships we have built over years, they simply do not have.
The skills a good family provides, the caring a good friend can offer, the support of a loved one, these things are often missing in a significant way for the person in the back.
They are hard people. They are sensitive people. They are raw people. They are hurt people. They are people who are down and out, and looking for a place to connect where they can find what they have been missing all along.
That makes them hard to connect to. A person who has had very little, if any, connection in an enduring way often doesn’t have the know-how to make and maintain that healing connection we all need.
Grace is necessary.
If you reach out to them, the person in question will offend you. They will say things that will get under your skin, they will act in ways that you just won’t understand, and they will push you to grow in ways that you never expected.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ ” – Matthew 25:34-36
Oh how we would wish the passage above was meant for serving people who are easy and appealing to work with. But it’s not, and they’re not. Not always. This Christian calling isn’t always merely an easy relationship between you and God. It’s deeply engrained in serving those who are in your reach. Serving them is as if you are serving God Himself- in His own words.
Boundaries are the most important thing I have learned in my own service. Not everyone will be aware of your personal boundaries, so you must take the initiative and the opportunities to make them aware. If something makes you uncomfortable, say it gently and firmly. It can be as simple as saying, “I’m not comfortable discussing that “or” That’s not something I want to share right now,” or “I would prefer if you didn’t do that around me, it makes it tough for me to feel comfortable around you.”
When you do this, you point out a break in the relationship- it’s important to offer a way for the relationship to continue. This is known as rupture-and-repair, and we often do it without thinking; in situations that are outside of our normal experience however, it’s easy to forget how to navigate through these new social challenges.
Many people can get over or ignore a small break, but often for the outsider, this signals a much larger break. This can feel like a repeat of a familiar experience for them, where people have abandoned them in the past. If you are committed to serving them, it is helpful to both point out your discomfort, and also offer them a way past it. You’re often offering them a new experience.
If you’re committing to serving them in this way, and this is new for you, then take heart and know that these disruptions get easier to manage and fewer the more time you spend with them.
Keep their personal boundaries in mind too. They may not know their own boundaries, or how to speak up in enforcing their own boundaries. It is one thing to help a person when they need it, and quite another–and inappropriate–thing to help them when they can help themselves. That is overstepping their boundaries and their dignity; even if that is what they ask for.
Our caring is not meant to enable selfishness, it is rather meant to lovingly challenge it and support them in change. This can be hard to discern. We can provide a safe place for them to recognize and restore their boundaries. You will learn a lot about your own boundaries in this process, lest you get prideful and think you understand them perfectly.
Time boundaries are important to enforce as well. They may very well want all of your time, and only have a passing grasp of how little you have; with their few connections, their experience of time is much different than yours.
For the continued good of the relationship, be clear about your boundaries. Find the common ground to connect on where you both are comfortable, and make sure they know how to respect your time too. A failure at clear boundaries can lead to resentment. Resentment is a cold, sticky toxin that can destroy any relationship if it is allowed to grow. Clear boundaries lead to healthy respect and trust. Clear boundaries can make nearly any relationship one that is restorative and healthy. It is from clear boundaries that we can give love most honestly, and least begrudgingly.
Be clear within yourself as to why you are serving. If you serve them for God, then leave them in His hands at the end of the day. Learn where to draw the line with what responsibility you take for them.
I have a passion for serving the overlooked, the uncomfortable, and the disconnected. I have been an outsider in places before, and I seek to share with them what I have learned. Above all, I seek to connect them to Jesus, the One who has made the difference in my life. I have learned much from serving the outsider, and I want to help make it easier for you as well.
Can you think of somebody you can challenge yourself to care for better? Can you think of someone you can consciously offer the gift of friendship?