In Which A Conversation With A Homeless Man Shapes My Future Self

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Photo by The Digital Story, via Flickr

The light at the top of the exit ramp was red when I pulled up to it. There was a man there. Grizzled. Curly beard. I recognized him. I’ve given him protein bars before. I pulled one out of the box between the seats and rolled down my window. “Here you go,” I said.

“Oh, thank you, ma’am!” he said. “That’s what I’m lookin’ for, is food.”

The light was red. What was I supposed to do now? Roll my window up and ignore his existence?

“Do you…do you have a place to go?” I asked.

He gestured to the opposite crook of the cross formed by four-lane roads. “Naw. I been sleepin’ down in those trees. It’s been pretty chilly lately.”

“I was going to say, it’s not been warm…” I eyed his thin jacket. “Do you have a tent or something, at least?” (Which is not as stupid a question as it might sound. We’ve seen tent communities in highway right-of-ways before.)

“Naw.”

It was exactly the the thing I’ve always (to be perfectly frank) dreaded about making eye contact with the homeless people: the need to have a conversation. I want to help. But an introvert hates trying to connect to new people anyway, and what can I possibly say to this man, who survives with almost none of the things I consider to be basic necessities? As the light turned green, I said, “Well…”

He smiled. He was missing his two middle upper teeth. “God bless you, ma’am.”

“Take care of yourself,” I said. Lame. Totally lame, when it’s perfectly clear that this guy has almost none of what he needs in order to take care of himself, and I, even I who am driving around in a van with 130,000 miles on it and making do with one TV (which is still a picture tube)—I could easily buy him a tent and a sleeping bag and a backpack to haul it all around in, if I hadn’t bought, however unwillingly, into the narrative that says These People might just trade it for drink and drugs anyway. And if I hadn’t used the truth that “you can’t fix someone else’s problem” as an excuse not to bother trying.

My insides writhe to admit I’ve allowed my own practice of mercy to be so small, so petty, and so accepting of blanket judgments.

But as I made the left turn and headed for home, I thought of Jesus saying, “The poor you will always have with you.” And how I’ve heard people who work with the poor say the goal is to provide today’s needs. That we don’t have to feel guilty because we’re not providing an ongoing monthly budget and a 401(k).

And I think of Oskar Schindler in the movie, crying, “I could have done more. I could have saved more.”

And I thought, this is what it means to practice mercy. To know it’s not enough. To feel uncomfortable in recognizing the extent of my own privilege. To live with that discomfort, and let it shape my choices today, the ones that build the person I will someday be.

Find more “Mercy on a Monday” posts here.

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The Trouble With “The” (A No Easy Answers Post)

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No Easy AnswersThe timing seemed a little ironic.

An old post, called “Words Matter: A Disability Primer,” was in the process of sending my blog views through the roof, and where was I? I was sitting in a ballroom listening to a priest share a piece of advice he was given when beginning a challenging urban assignment:

“Lose the word ‘the.’”

Not the homeless, the poor, the mentally ill. Because that terminology is a label that builds walls. Just as calling someone a “Downs kid” reduces them to their disability, referring to the homeless or the mentally ill reduces people to whatever struggle they face. It makes them “Those People,” which is to say, “Not Like Me.”

I am 100% guilty of this.

It’s easier to deal with the things that make us uncomfortable when we can compartmentalize them. We can all sympathize with Those People as long as They are kept at a distance. As long as all it requires is to feel sympathy and maybe toss some money at the problem.

Except there’s this inconvenient, deeply convicting truth I once heard, and which has stuck with me ever since: The Homeless are not a problem to be solved, but people to be loved. You can substitute any number of other troublesome issues and the same is true.

Love is not practiced at a distance.

Love is practiced person to person, eyes meeting eyes and hands meeting hands. Which adds additional inconvenient truths, because when you get to know someone it’s a whole lot harder to pass judgment on them.

The next morning, as I ran by the river beside the hotel, I passed at least three people who had clearly slept under viaducts. It was hard for me not to examine my own conscience.

Because this call to love is a nightmare for an introvert. It’s hard enough for me to walk into a gathering of church musicians, people who have similar training and interests and passions, and get to know people. To try to bridge the chasm between me and people whose life experiences and choices and circumstances have landed them in a place so far removed from mine? I can only say again: nightmare.

Now, here’s my problem. There are good things in the world, and the fact that suffering exists elsewhere does not render those good things bad. They’re still good.

But we live lives so insulated from the suffering, we don’t even recognize our own sense of entitlement anymore. I’m dancing at Jazzercise to music performed by people who have millions of dollars to throw at nothing, and I count myself more righteous because I don’t throw money at nothing. Except, well, Jazzercise.

I mean, think about the way we live. We have so much wealth that we hold eating contests where a person wins by consuming ten thousand calories’ worth of hot dogs in ten minutes. Five days’ worth of calories. For a Westerner. For someone in the developing world? Maybe a week and a half’s worth of food. In ten minutes.

The candy store sells fudge only by the slice, a slice so big that six of us could eat from it twice. The portion sizes at restaurants everywhere are so big that Christian and I can split one between us and count it as more than a full meal.

And because we consider this “normal,” we have to pay even more money to go to exercise classes and tuck our tummies and buy weight loss supplements.

And upon this sort of attitude does our entire economy hinge.

I can’t escape the conclusion that we’re all, collectively—even the most aware and convicted among us—completely, sinfully clueless. The “consumer culture” that Pope Francis took to task in Laudato Si is something that every one of us participates in. And those of us who profess to be Christians should be really uncomfortable with that.

I don’t know where to draw the line between a healthy enjoyment of the goodness of modern life—$100 hotel robes, king-sized beds, Wii and weekend getaways—and sinful cluelessness.

But maybe that’s all right. We, the comfortable, need to be afflicted sometimes, because we need to be shaken awake every so often and realize there’s a bigger world out there and we have a responsibility to it. Even if there aren’t any clear cut solutions.

In The Shadow Of The Viaduct

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Photo by prestigiacomo.patricia, via Flickr

I gave to a homeless man.
Two pennies, a nickel, a couple of quarters
The jingling contents of my pocket
After twenty dollar tickets
And six dollar hot dogs
In the shadow of a viaduct
Cars roaring above
Stadium roaring behind
He saw me coming
Read my body language
Met me
As my family moved on ahead
Less than sixty cents
Practically nothing
And yet I touched his hand
Met his eyes
Bright and alive
Not dead
Not worn down
Surprisingly young
And I wonder what he thought
As he said thank you sweetheart
It’s still not enough.

What Happened After Venus Crossed the Sun

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Alex and I had a date last night. At 4:30 we all loaded into the van and went down to the university to meet Christian, who took the younger three (even the baby!) back home so the two of us could have some quality time with several hundred other people crowded onto a rooftop with telescopes and cool crazy glasses that let you look directly at the sun.

Our only job was to stop to pick up pictures before we came home–a job easier said than accomplished, as I had never actually been in this particular camera store and I didn’t know exactly where it was. It took ten minutes of circling blocks to find it, and we had to park two blocks away and walk. As we rounded the corner, I vaguely noticed two men crouched in the shade at the corner. I thought they were homeless.

We picked up our pictures and started back toward the car. I tried to inspect the men without being obvious. They sort of looked homeless, but they didn’t have the signs, the backpacks, the signs that would make them unmistakable. Besides, I had no cash on me at all–well, I had about three pennies in my wallet. Besides, Alex and I were talking about astronomical stuff. I was halfway down the block before it occurred to me that the men were sitting across the street from Panera. How hard would it have been to run inside and grab a couple sandwiches for them?

English: A homeless man in Paris Français : Un...
English: A homeless man in Paris Français : Un sans domicile fixe à Paris. Tiếng Việt: Một người đàn ông vô gia cư ở Paris Polski: Bezdomny mężczyzna w Paryżu See below for more translations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I very nearly stopped, turned around, went back. Visions of Matthew 25 flashed before me. But my inhibitions took off, swirling like a circle of bats. What if the men weren’t homeless after all, and I insulted them by asking? Besides, Michael had been crabby when I left him with Christian, and it had been almost two and a half hours since he’d nursed.

You will perhaps not be surprised to know that I neither stopped nor talked to Alex about them. We just came home.

I begin to despair of ever reaching peace with how to interact with the poor among us–what is truly the Christlike way of treating the homeless. I’m really trying to live my faith by simply doing things in the presence of my children, and not always talking about it. Two weeks ago, for example, we were flying from piano lesson to baseball game and stopped by HyVee for salads and chicken fingers for dinner. I splurged on two crab rangoon, and as we sat at the stoplight off the interstate, I saw a young man sitting in the corner. I couldn’t give him much of our food without making someone else go hungry, but I called him over and gave him my crab rangoon as the light turned green.

In an earlier stage of my life, I kept peanut butter, plastic silverware and packages of crackers in the car so I could hand them out to people begging at intersections. But I haven’t done that in a long time. We take food to the homeless shelter a couple times a year. It’s something, I suppose. It just doesn’t seem like enough.

I suppose I’m grateful that they’re there, like a thorn in my side, popping my bubble of self-righteousness before it gets too bloated. Keeping me aware not only of the suffering of the world, but of my own weaknesses.

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(P.S. In case you’ve never witnessed me wrestle with homelessness before, read here and here.)

Friday Advent Adventures: Kids, Service, and the Season

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Homeless Shelter

Image by Tobyotter via Flickr

One of the fundamental underpinnings of everything I’m trying to get at during Advent is that it’s not all about us. But it’s a tricky thing to find the right balance of service, spiritual growth, and fun. Service, as I’ve noted in the past, can actually be really fun, but only if you don’t overdo it.

Last year, Alex began noticing the men who stand beside the highway. So when we delivered the canned goods to the homeless shelter, we made sure he helped us carry them inside.

And yet he didn’t really get it. After all, everything he needs is given to him by someone else, so he couldn’t process what made those men’s lives different from his. He doesn’t really understand how anyone could actually be without a home. Early in Advent, he asked about the man who was begging beside the highway exit. Christian tried to explain it, and Alex kept listing all kinds of people to take care of the man: his mommy, his daddy, his grandparents. He never really got that that man had nowhere to go.

I think there probably are kids who “get it”—but only those who are themselves in desperate need. For those blessed with stable homes and families, however flawed and broken, the reality of poverty is too distant to process. And most of us wouldn’t want it any other way. Our instinct is to protect our children, to shield them from the ugliness that the world has to offer, until they are old enough to feel secure in their faith in God and humanity.

There are those who choose another path, who bring their kids up working among the poor, in missions around the world, in food pantries right at home. And sometimes I think those kids are being given the greatest gift of all. After all, let’s be honest about what being shielded from ugliness does to us. Look at us as adults. How often do we really process poverty? It makes us uncomfortable. We turn our heads, we refuse to make eye contact, we pretend we don’t notice them—because to acknowledge them is to tacitly admit that we have a responsibility to do something about it.

Alex is a tiger about the homeless. In the past year, he’s begun to make the first tentative connections, and if I drive past a man standing with a cardboard sign, his response is instantaneous, and outraged: “Mommy, why didn’t you give that man something?” This tells me that it’s time to move into the next stage of Advent planning—the one in which we actually make the personal connections. This is the stage I’ve been advocating since day one…and simultaneously dreading. The stage where we actually express our faith through works. Works that take us out of our comfort zone, that require us to grow.

Next week: take a meal to the homeless shelter. Not canned goods. A meal. Made by the work of our hands.

This, folks, is one more example of the way children force you to grow in your faith.

Help me out here, Advent adventurers. What concrete things can we do to serve the least among us, hand to hand, face to face, and not at a distance?