How Not to Pre-Judge People
Being in service to people in crisis taught us this essential truth: trust transforms both parties
Twenty years ago, I showed up on a dilapidated corner of Bankhead Highway, in one of Atlanta’s roughest corridors, with a van full of food. I had just formed a nonprofit called City of Refuge, and this was my first attempt to go out into the community to serve people in crisis, people who for whatever reason had not found a safe, comfortable path through the wilderness of life.
Maybe you’ll be surprised to hear this, or maybe you won’t: My first meal did not go smoothly. In fact, in the narrow window of three terrifying minutes, it made me wonder if I should go home and throw in the towel for good.
My first meal service was well underway that day, with a crowd of fifty or so people gathered for the best hot chili that my wife Rhonda, a few volunteers, and I could put together. I was filling my umpteenth plastic bowl when I heard screaming. First a female voice, then a male one, in a jumbled string of obscenities. I scanned for the noise and saw a woman reach into her jacket pocket and pull out a gun.
My worries about what might go wrong that evening had been things like, What if we run out of cheese? What if we can’t plate food fast enough? I hadn’t once thought: What if someone pulls out a .45‑caliber pistol? I was a white Christian pastor from rural Virginia who now lived in the Atlanta suburbs — in other words, an interloper with no real knowledge of the streets. Nevertheless, I had shown up believing I could do some good by serving a desperate need.
People nearby immediately scattered into shadows and around corners. I then had a clear line of sight to the object of this woman’s fury: a rail-thin man in baggy, dirty sweatpants. His face showed hints of worn-away rouge and kohl that I wasn’t sure what to make of. He was as aggressive as someone with a gun pointed in his face could possibly be, hurling insults that seemed to dare her to pull the trigger. Catcalls rang out from the shadows, excited fanfare that contrasted wildly with my own anxiety.
Over the next months, years, and eventually decades, I would come to know these two angry combatants intimately. But that day, I had no idea who they were or how they had arrived there. I didn’t know if they knew each other. I didn’t know whether the gun had bullets or if Gloria (a name I would learn later) had ever pulled the trigger before. I didn’t know exactly why they were so angry, so volatile, so seemingly bent on destruction at just the moment when a hot meal was coming their way. I knew only that they were matching each other stare for stare, threat for threat. My breath caught in my throat as sweat beaded my brow.
I glanced back at the building behind me, an empty warehouse beside a liquor store. The one volunteer who had come with me that day was standing inside the building’s storm door, holding the handle. I could tell by the look on his face that he was holding the door shut, unwilling to step out into the fray.
I didn’t know yet that Gloria was seen on the streets as an unusually kind soul, a pleasant conversationalist who was known to share a blanket on a cold night or food from her own meager stash. I didn’t know that she was an alcoholic or how hard it was to combine that illness with being black and poor and come up with anything other than tragedy.
Though the whooping crowd had an obvious favorite (Gloria), I didn’t know that Rufus was unanimously regarded as belligerent and hateful, quick to cut those with whom he disagreed, seemingly without reason. Nor did I know anything about his background — that he had never had a safe place where he was loved unconditionally and that the closest approximation he’d had was a community of needle-sharing prostitutes. I didn’t know how many churches, erstwhile sanctuaries for those in need, had turned him away or imposed conditions for participation that Rufus was unwilling to comply with.
I also didn’t know how poorly I understood poverty and the ways it traps and traumatizes those in its grasp. Like so many privileged people, I had considered the problems of the poor only through the filter of my own experience. I’ve already said I’m a white guy from Virginia. While my family didn’t have much money and my childhood was less than conventional, I had the privilege of two loving parents with high expectations for my future and a home of security, love, and opportunity. In other words, I was born with momentum.
I didn’t understand yet that poverty isn’t caused by bad decisions as much as it compels them. I didn’t recognize what I now call opportunity injustice, the individual and systemic factors that lock people in crisis — poverty, untreated mental illness, and addiction, and the criminalization of all three.
Of course, knowing all that wouldn’t have been much help in a gunfight anyway. Something more instinctive took me over — call it adrenaline, or the stirrings of my upbringing. Growing up in the mountains of southwest Virginia, I was no stranger to a fight. I had never run from conflict, and I didn’t run from this one. Instead, I stepped gingerly between Gloria and Rufus, who at this point had both gone silent, furious eyes speaking loudly enough. I gently placed my hand on Gloria’s. The steel barrel of the gun protruded from our coupled hands and she gave no indication of backing down.
“You don’t really want to do this, do you?” I asked.
As I said the words, I put just the slightest bit of gentle downward pressure on her hand. Time seemed to hang for a moment, none of us sure what would come next. But then I felt the tension ease in Gloria’s body like a sigh. She dropped her arm to her side and slipped the gun into her jacket pocket. Rufus continued his mouthy commentary as I shared a moment with Gloria, deep sorrow in her eyes. She turned quickly and moved down the sidewalk, only her shadow walking with her. Rufus looked at the group that had enthusiastically booed him, taunted them with a smile, and turned to collect a bowl of chili from the table. I worked to slow my breathing, wiped the sweat from my face, and steadied myself against the table.
Now I sit looking back, 21 years later. Those simple parking lot meals slowly but surely matured into the vision embodied in the name we gave our organization, City of Refuge.
City of Refuge today is a uniquely holistic, full-service program for people in crisis that has now served as the model for successful efforts in ten other cities. We have supported countless thousands of homeless, addicted, and disadvantaged individuals in the 30314 zip code of Atlanta by offering them everything they need, in one place, to move themselves and their children from crisis to dignity and independence.
But as unique and complex as our solution has become, a big part of what makes us different and special is still our emphasis on trusting the people who come through our doors from day one; not in the person who they will be, but in the person they are. When training our staff, we spend a lot of time hitting home three prerogatives: love everybody, accept everybody, and leave any judgment outside our gates. Every day, in ways both explicit and implicit, we let the people in our programs know they are worthy of our trust and care. We offer them the opportunities they’ve been lacking and the time they need so that they can learn to trust that their own actions can lead to a better future, amid a community of people who believe in them and lift them up.
Those three words I spoke to Jake in the parking lot — “We come back” — turned out to be remarkably prescient. There’s no expiration date on our commitment to people. Trust alone is nothing without time.
You could say that City of Refuge has been the laboratory where together, we (me and thousands of volunteers and recipients of care) have learned trust and relearned it again and again — trust in others; trust in ourselves; trust that we can do things differently tomorrow than we did them today. Together we’ve seen how trust transforms both parties in the exchange, time and time again. In twenty years of this evolving journey, I’ve taken away some lessons that I believe aren’t just important to helping heal those in need but also to helping heal all of us.
How does one change their mindset regarding people in crisis and learn to not “pre-judge”?
Being able to avoid the “pre-judgment” that so many of us cast upon those transitioning from crisis is difficult. Their lives and experiences are so foreign to us that we can only rely on the negative tropes and stereotypes that have been perpetrated through the news and the media. To escape this mindset, you must:
1. Understand nobody is a finished package
Nobody, and I mean nobody, is a finished product. Not you, not I, and most certainly, not those transitioning from crisis. They may have stumbled and fallen harder than the rest of us, but no one is incapable of being helped and helping themselves.
2. Realize that everyone has a history
We all have experiences that have shaped the people we are — both positive and negative. Some people get cast a worse hand than others, and some people get cast a hand that is so terrible that it is a wonder how they even made it this far. To avoid pre-judgment, we have to learn that those transitioning from crisis have experienced things that we cannot imagine on our worst days. These people did not simply appear out of nowhere.
3. Believe life is not pre-destined
There is only one being in this universe that knows how it all plays out, and they are not going to tell you any time soon. But one thing is certain, everyone can change. Even when you think you have lost your last bit of faith in someone, understand that there is still hope. It may be a longer road with plenty of bumps and sidetracks, but anyone can create a new, better life for themselves. All it takes is a helping hand, some guidance, and plenty of love and support.
4. Be willing to get involved
Regardless of what subject, from the outside looking in, everything looks black and white. It’s not until you step inside that you can see all of the nuance and complexities it has to offer. By volunteering your time to your community to help those transitioning from crisis, you can begin to see the trials and experiences and hopes and dreams of those afflicted. It will lead you to a greater understanding of both them and yourself.
I can’t do the math on it, but my experience tells me that our best hope in recasting someone’s future — in breaking the cycle so oppressive it seems predestined — lies in offering a trusting and faithful heart, again and again if necessary, until a person is ready to accept it. Then you only have to be willing to walk together, as long as it takes.
From TRUST FIRST: A True Story About the Power of Giving People Second Chances
By Bruce Deel and Sara Grace, published by Optimism Press, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.