There is a phrase that I continue to hear in churches and clinics alike: “We have to meet people where they are.” Usually there are nods of agreement, knowing smiles for anyone who has walked with someone through challenging times, or has had others walk with them through their own.
I have mentioned this a lot as well; And I mean it. And it’s important to revisit this again.
The CDC actually lists it as one of the key guiding principles related to overdose prevention concerning the opioid epidemic (an epidemic that is related to the HIV and Hep C epidemics as well). Since it is Hepatitis Awareness month and May 19th is Hepatitis Testing Day, I thought further reflection on this guiding principle might be appropriate for us.
So, back to this idea of meeting people where they are. It is a phrase that, for me, can begin to sound silly the more we say it. After all, where else might we meet someone…where they aren’t?
Well…quite simply, yes. Whether intentional or unintentional, there are often numerous barriers for relationship that keep us from meeting people where they are.
For one, to meet someone else where they are, we have to see them–to know well, where they are and who they are. There is still a phrase that haunts me as I reflect on it. Someone was describing a group of people as invisible. Invisible. Do you hear how the language betrays something more insidious: no one is actually invisible. That is not a thing. Rather, it is people who are blind. We cannot meet people where they are if we cannot see them, for whatever reason that may be.
People who take IV drugs account for nine percent of new HIV infections and sixty percent of Hep C infections in the US.
A friend of mine who works in this field sent me some stats around opioid use and hepatitis C infections. I am ashamed to say how ignorant I was concerning the state of the hepatitis infection in the US. About 3.5 million Americans are currently living with hepatitis C and roughly half are unaware of their infection. However, Hep C is incredibly treatable and largely curable with the right treatment. We all should be tested!
Secondly, meeting someone where they are requires movement from where you are to where they are. And this is super uncomfortable. It requires action. Being with them in whatever it is that they are in. How are you joining with others on their terms rather than yours?
Thirdly, meeting someone where they are also means staying with them until they are ready to move somewhere else. There is something called the “transtheoretical model for change” which helps to explain that not everyone is always at a place where they are ready to start making changes: it’s a process. We know this to be true in our own lives, in large and small ways. We also know that we’ve needed people to be with us along the stages for change, to listen to us, encourage us, and support us in the actions we are ready to take.
Which leads to a final reflection: meeting people where they are means our main concern is NOT to take them where we want them to be. Our main concern and chief aim is to be with them. This can be the hardest part of learning to truly serve someone is to love them enough to honor their God-given agency–their ability to make decisions for themselves. I continue to be amazed at how Jesus did this in his ministry time and time again. He let people walk away from him. He responded when people were ready to receive healing. He invited people to be with him, and forced no one.
But here is the beautiful thing that can happen. As we meet someone where they are, that place become the place for new relationship where God meets us both. Indeed, is this not a central and amazing core conviction of Christian faith: that God meets us where we are because God desires to be with us and us with God?
We believe that it is our calling to bear witness to hope, offering opportunities of hope, by building relationships with those most affected by health disparities/stigma related to HIV. Let’s meet each other where we are, because where we are is where relationship (and transformation!) happen.