There was a day in high school when my car broke down on the highway, on my way to school for a band trip. It was 6:55 a.m. and the highway was deserted. I was in a panic, because I was stranded a mile from the nearest phone, and also because I was going to miss the bus and get in trouble. A nice man stopped and gave me a ride. I ran up to the bus in tears, trailing uniform and picc case, just as the buses were pulling out. As I settled into the vinyl seat, I made a vow: I am never going to pass by someone in need, ever again.
I kept that vow for a while. That memory, and that vow, formed my decision to be confirmed Veronica—the woman who wiped the face of Jesus.
The challenge began in earnest when I started working at Lourdes. Every morning I pulled off the interstate and turned left on Stadium. This is the city’s prime panhandling spot, because you can stand right beside the drivers’ doors. It’s very hard to ignore a person standing six feet away holding cardboard signs: Will work for food. Broke Hungry Need help God bless you. Disabled vet. But if you make eye contact, they come running forward. So you spend the entire 45 seconds at the light with your whole body tense, your hands clutching the steering wheel, staring fixedly at the sky on the other side of the overpass, and praying for absolution.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve broken that vow. Or how many different people I saw there. Men with faces of tanned leather, gaunt and bearded. Couples with gray, saggy skin. Old men with missing limbs. Young men carrying backpacks. Sunburned or frozen or drenched, depending on the season. Once, I saw a young woman with blond hair who was just as scared to make eye contact with me as I was to make eye contact with her.
Conventional wisdom says that if you give them money, they’ll spend it on drugs or booze. There was another article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about this just this week. But how can you justify lumping every beggar into one category? That is exactly the behavior that we abhor when applied to race or religion or gender.
And then, too, I remember a priest reflecting on Jesus talking about the poor. “We always separate the deserving poor from the undeserving poor,” said this priest. “But whether or not they deserve it is not the point. It’s irrelevant. It’s about fulfilling our Christian duty. It’s about us being generous.”
Christian and I have this discussion periodically. He, and everyone else, says that you’re not helping them by enabling their addictions. Better to give to the places that take care of the homeless.
Only we don’t.
That’s my biggest problem with this whole line of reasoning. It’s a copout. Human nature dictates that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” You address the pain that is in your face. When it’s not in your face, you go about your life feeling more or less self-satisfied, and pretend it isn’t there. No, that’s not right. It’s more that you forget that it’s there. Once in a while—on a stormy night, or a frigid night, you might reflect on how others aren’t as lucky, as blessed, as you are. You might say a prayer for them to find shelter. But do anything about it? That’s something else entirely.
If we took the money that we would give to panhandlers, and gave it to the shelter instead, that would be good. But we don’t. We just don’t give at all.
This weekend I squirmed in my seat when the priest gave his homily on the woman with the hemorrhaging. He talked about the healing power of touch, and how we’re called to reach out to the wounded and the broken. This sounds very touchy-feely, very warm fuzzy, and not difficult. After all, we’re all happy to comfort and counsel our friends—to provide a listening ear when those we care about are in need.
And that’s good, and praiseworthy, but…but there are others who need it more. The people who most need love are the ones we can’t stand to be around: those who are emotionally needy—the bitter and caustic—the negative and judgmental—those who are so singleminded about their one “issue,” whatever it is, that they don’t see anything else.
The people we try hardest to avoid are the ones who most need us to be Christ for them.
So here I sit, on my back yard swing, beneath my comfortable home, with my wealth of children and toys and writing, intercepting phone calls about family visits—people who fit into the category of those I do want to spend time with. How does this series of reflections change me? What I am called to do?
I’d like to close my eyes and whine, I don’t know, but that too would be a copout. I do know what I’m supposed to do. The question is, will I do it?
Dang. Christianity is hard.