I’ll admit it. Sometimes I have trouble listening to people because I think I know more than they do. I think I’ve got a better idea. Are you guilty, too?

In Christian ministry, listening to the community is essential before swooping in to “fix” a problem. After all, the people we want to “help” know what they need better than we do, particularly if we don’t even know them personally or live in their neighborhood. In Making Neighborhoods Whole, John Perkins and Wayne Gordon call our impulse for “fixing” without listening paternalism: “Listening to the community emerged as a key component in the [Christian Community Development Association] in part to combat a paternalistic approach to solving a community’s problems. We define paternalism in terms of outsiders–usually people who have achieved some measure of success in the eyes of the world–coming into a community and communicating, in their approach and general attitude, ‘We are successful. We have the answers. We know what works and what doesn’t work. Just listen to us, and eventually everything will be fine'” (102).

Jesus, of course, was the consummate listener. Even though he actually knew what people needed, he often asked them what they wanted before he provided it. For example, consider his healing of Bartimaeus, a blind man, recorded in Mark 10:46-52. As Jesus and his disciples walked the road from Jericho, Bartimaeus caught their attention by shouting, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ The disciples called Bartimaeus to Jesus, who then asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’  This question gave Bartimaeus the opportunity to demonstrate his faith. Jesus then gave him his sight.

Recently, I was waiting at a crosswalk on Commerce Street in downtown Dallas. As a car drove by, the driver rolled down his window and threw out a blanket to the man standing next to me who appeared to be homeless. Without a word, the car quickly sped away. I don’t know the blanket-tosser’s motivation, and I don’t want to judge him. But I do know the effect it had on the man who caught the blanket in mid-air. He looked at me, dumbfounded and embarrassed. I was embarrassed, too, and said something dumb like “Well, I guess you have another blanket now.” For him, it was one more thing to tote around at a time he needed to travel lightly.

We all want to help our neighbors in need. But first, let’s listen and try to understand. How we help is crucial to the dignity of people made in God’s image.