Still Being a “Rich Christian in an Age of Hunger”

Yesterday while out running errands, I made a stop at Target, that great hotbed of middle class consumer delight. I have to confess that there is something about Target – whether it be the colors, the creative ways things are displayed, the easily affordable products (the $1 spot people!), etc. – that always makes me spend more than I intend to. This time, as I walked from my car to the store, I was stopped by a woman holding a sign that read, “Hungry. Please help” and pushing a Target cart with her small toddler daughter in the seat. She made eye contact with me, glanced down at my growing belly and said, “Please help. You know what it’s like to be a mother.”

I was quite taken aback, but old habits die hard so I quickly mumbled something about not having any cash (which was true), averted my eyes and tucked my purse under my arm more tightly as I rushed into the store. About 15 minutes later, when I emerged from Target with purchases in tow and a Starbucks Frappucino in my hand, I could still see her across the parking lot, talking with other customers.

Most of us have probably had experiences like this one, and if you live in a city, it’s probably actually not a very uncommon occurrence.  There are a laundry list of cynicisms or advice for “dealing with” situations like this one that I have heard throughout the years:

  • If you give this person money, it will probably be squandered, perhaps on drugs or something else. It’s better to offer food or nothing at all.
  • Just don’t make eye contact. It’s important to become desensitized, because you will see this all the time.
  • There’s too many people and we can’t help them all.
  • This is a systemic issue, and giving money or food to someone begging just perpetuates the system. Find other, more helpful ways to work towards alleviating poverty.
  • These people aren’t our responsibility.
  • People who are out asking for money likely are actually making quite a bit of money, perhaps even more than I make at my job. (Yup, I’ve heard this one)

This list could go on, and you all could probably add your own list of concerns, but all I know is that, yesterday, I was profoundly struck again by how dehumanizing poverty or need must be, and how terrible it must feel to stand with your child in a parking lot and to be passed by and ignored over and over by people carrying bags of merchandise or $4 coffees to their car. I don’t know this woman’s story, and some people might see the statement that she made to me about motherhood as manipulative. But as I thought about it afterwards, driving home from the store, it seemed that maybe it was really just a plea for me to see her:  to relate her experiences to my own in some way.

Now I certainly don’t have a strategy figured out for the next time that I see someone. I have at times offered money or food to someone who has asked, and I often do at least try to make eye contact and smile. Last week, I read a blog by Erika Morrison who told about ways that her family is trying to include a “plus one” at every meal that they eat, by providing food for someone who might not have had access to it before.

And it’s easy to look at these solutions and suggest that they are inadequate. It’s true: they are not necessarily addressing all of the forms of brokenness that led people to this place. Offering food or money is not helping to treat mental health conditions, addictions, looking at unfair labor conditions, disparities in access to education, and a whole set of systemic issues that social services can sometimes help to address. But I think that sometimes it is not enough to simply see the system: We need to see each of the people and unique individuals who get caught in its gears, and we need to acknowledge them. What having a conversation or offering some food or acknowledging someone can do is to simply name a person as a person, and to acknowledge them as a person with dignity and worthy of respect.

 

Dorothy Day

This semester, I had the opportunity to study Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who spent much of her adult life living with and amongst the poor and homeless. Today, the Catholic Worker movement is still centered on a firm belief in “the God-given dignity of every human person.” There are 213 Catholic Worker communities around the world who are committed to “nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken.”

These are communities that seek to be a space for people to come and to feel at home and human. We need to take this call seriously in each new encounter, because it is as Dorothy Day herself said, “I firmly believe that our salvation depends on the poor.”

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Still Being a “Rich Christian in an Age of Hunger”

  1. Well, first off I’d say the best strategy that works for me is to direct the person to the nearest church or police station. Our church here is downtown and the homeless and the “homeless” all panhandle down there. Whenever I’m approached I know that if they truly are seeking food, clothing or shelter or money for a bus ticket or a gallon of gas that they can get all of these things either from the church directly or from the two missions around the corner from the church. You can also print up business cards with your name, church affiliation and the addresses and phone numbers of churches and rescue missions in the area. I’ve known some people on ministry in high-homeless areas who also carry prepaid cellphones so that the folks can call for help right there.

    There are two kinds of homeless people–I have this information from hospital staff, homeless people and formerly homeless people, so it’s not something that I’ve come up with from my first world perch. There are those who are truly seeking help and those who WANT to be homeless because of a combination of reasons. The ones who elect longterm homelessness generally have mental health issues that are untreated because they refuse treatment. They’re the classic “just spend it on booze” folks. The others who are truly seeking help are the ones who, when given the right circumstances pull out of the trap of homelessness and poverty.

    In either case, directing them to churches and missions and then giving the churches and missions your tithe/gifts is the most responsible response. Because those missions can get medical help for the chronically homeless, placement help for the situationally helpless and nourishing food for both.

    For your own safety it is best to not give money directly to any panhandler. If they see you have money in some cases you could be mugged. It’s especially popular for panhandlers to target women and pregnant women because they are seen as more vulnerable. Your first duty as steward of your life and your child’s life is to protect those things for the use of God.

    But yes, we are called to give our second coats away. And the best way to do that is the way I’ve outlined. Or you can start a homeless ministry in your area if one doesn’t already exist. But organised ministries are the best and safest way to get the help out there.

    • Katherine, I just don’t think it’s as black and white as you outline. Does your advice come from a place of having spent hours of your time and heart in the company of homeless people? Learning their names and hearing their stories? I’m not sure if I have heard a more dehumanizing response then the one you just gave – what I heard you say was, “shuffle them off on the institutions, their their problem, not mine”. What you miss is the face-to-face privilege of having yourself broken over their life stories and struggles and vices. And I feel like I can say this to you because I have several-times-a-week interaction with homeless people, getting my hands and soul dirty.

      In addition, I’ve written several articles about this topic as this brand of marginalized people are big on my heart.

      http://deeperstory.com/jesus-had-blue-eyes-or-plus-one/

      http://www.the-lifeartist.com/2012/05/07/i-need-you-too-will-you-believe-it/

      http://www.the-lifeartist.com/2012/02/13/we-are-all-of-us-hungry-for-more-then-bread/

      • Yes, as a matter of fact, it DOES come from hours and hours and hours spent in the company of homeless people.

        But I’m not going to play the self-righteous game of “I’m more in touch with you on this and therefore more right.”

        I offered the most practical and practicable advice I can.

        Having your heart broken is one one thing. Putting someone else’s back together is quite another. You may think my way “dehumanising”. I am appalled that you would make that judgment, but that’s your priviledge.

        My way has put countless people back in clothing and homes and jobs. My way has put young people back on the bus to their parents when they realised that running away to Nashville wasn’t the solution to their problems. My way has put mentally ill men in hospitals where their medications have been adjusted, enabling them to take on the challenges of maintaining a home and employment. My way has seen those men reunited with their children.

        You portray this as “shuffling them off to institiutions.” I see it as getting them in touch with all of the things they need to fix their problems. I can give someone five bucks that they spend on a hot meal or a bottle of cheap booze or a hit of rock. Or I can get them to the mission where they can get a room, a shower, clean clothes and their present clothes laundered. Once at the mission they can be seen by doctors, career counselors, financial specialists and social workers who all work together to get them what they need.

        Frankly I see just “having your heart broken by their stories” as a bit of emotional self-gratification. “Oh aren’t I wonderful for hearing this story and crying over it!!” But it doesn’t HELP FEED PEOPLE or HELP MAKE THEM WELL. It just says, look at this poor person! Isn’t it sad, how poor they are? Please.

        Dismissive???? How is it dismissive to get people food, clothing, shelter, medical help, homes and jobs?

        And God forgive me if I ever refer to working with any other person as “getting my hands dirty.” As though other people are sewage pits or ditch dirt.

      • Hannah Heinzekehr

        Erika and Katherine –

        Thanks to both of you for sharing your thoughts. I think you both offer points for consideration that do need to be taken seriously. Katherine, I agree with you that often times organizations that are set up with resources to help people navigate systems that can help alleviate homelessness and poverty are important, and we should be referring people to these places. However, I also would be troubled to simply say that things are so clear cut that people either 1) want to be homeless or 2) don’t want to and can get out of the system. While I think those two camps exist, I think there are many people who fall into the middle somewhere. I think addictions and mental illness can result from homelessness and then make it harder to navigate systems to get out. I think that the resources that organizations have to offer are limited, and that sometimes even navigating social systems can be treacherous and take a certain level of education, knowledge, etc. And I think that there are some homeless people who have a greater access to outside social support systems – either because of location, family, race, etc. – than others, which also makes it more difficult to find a sustainable path out of homelessness.

        I also agree with you that there are some times when we do need to be concerned about safety, and when it’s certainly not smart to whip out a wallet. However, yesterday’s encounter in a very public parking lot with lots of people around didn’t seem to be one of those settings. And I was challenged to think about both places I could have referred her for help, but also ways that I could have helped to humanize her in that moment. What would it have looked like for me to offer to buy them a snack and to have sat and talked with them for a bit on the bench in front of a the store? Maybe that’s impractical, but it’s one idea I had. And I know I can’t do that with everyone, but when those opportunities arise, how do we respond?

        Erika, I appreciate the response that you suggested of connecting on an emotional level. While I agree with Katherine that we sometimes need to be careful about limits and that we are not simply operating out of our own desires to “feel good about ourselves,” I was really touched by your blog that I read last week and by your family’s conviction to really live out Jesus’ call to be good neighbors.

    • Katherine, I am so sincerely sorry for the way I spoke to you. It was very badly done. This morning I wasn’t in a good frame of mind and I had a knee-jerk reaction (which doesn’t mean my knee jerks more right then yours or anyone else’s) and responded without thinking about your comment more reflectively. Again, I am most sorry. I know better (could even hear my conscience saying, “Erika, you know better”) then to come out with both guns blazing, but I did it anyway. I can be a ridiculous and dumb human being sometimes. Please forgive me. 😦

    • Hannah, I’m sorry for clogging your comments with my pettiness. Please forgive me also?

      My final thought for the day is this: When I am face to face with someone in need (whether homeless or other), all I remember is Grace – that no matter where they came from or where they are going, I’m going to bless them (maybe give them something they don’t deserve) because that is what has been done for me again and again and again. And I know I don’t deserve an atom of it myself.

  2. Elizabeth

    This is something that I have thought a lot about since moving to Bogotá, Colombia, three years ago. Bogotá is a city of eight million people, and we live and work in the city’s center, where there is a high concentration of homeless and otherwise destitute people. Unfortunately there are very, very few public or private services here to refer people to, so that’s not an option.

    At first, my strategy was to ignore anyone who approached me (partially because I couldn’t understand what they were saying…). But then I started watching the responses of other Bogotanos. If there is someone begging for food outside of a grocery store or a bakery, customers will inevitably buy an extra roll of bread or bag of milk to share on their way out. Others will make a point of buying plastic bags or incense from street sellers (bags and incense being only one step up from begging). And even if they don’t hand out one peso, they will still make eye contact and listen.

    Obviously this isn’t a structural solution, but watching Bogotanos has taught me a lot about the importance of humanizing those who make me uncomfortable. Thanks for this honest post, Hannah.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Elizabeth – Thanks for this perspective. I think that when people are faced with situations like this on a daily basis, rather than as an anomaly or special situation that I encounter only once in awhile, different strategies can develop. It seems like the Bogotanos have a lot to offer folks like me in helping to think through what it means to respond to others in ways that preserve their dignity and humanize them. Thanks!

  3. Ryan

    When visiting mission workers in Lithuania, I remember passing beggars at the gates entering churches. As the workers placed money in the beggars’ plates, they said that that tradition (Lithuanian? Orthodox? I can’t recall now) considered panhandlers–even career panhandlers–as important parts of the church. Their presence was a constant reminder that all of us are called to recognize our responsibility to help those who are less fortunate than we are. Worship, then, includes the process of passing by those in need and choosing–as an act that is connected to the upcoming worship service–how to respond.

    My responses since I’ve returned have not always been generous, but thinking about giving to those in need out of a context of worship has changed my attitude and my approach–even to the man I see regularly whose situation has not changed no matter how many places I’ve driven him or times I have given. If my giving is an act of worship, it changes my expectations of the results. Instead of thinking about what good my giving will do, I can look someone in the eye, have a conversation, and offer a gift as a way of joining my faith to my actions. I can consider more opportunities to worship.

    This may be an overly self-centered way to think about poverty. Indeed, I don’t intend to address the problem of poverty with this comment. As others have already commented, there are more effective ways of combating poverty than individual giving. But in thinking about the beggars in Vlinius and reading Elizabeth’s comment from Colombia makes me think that our Western professionalization of ministry to the homeless has removed us from the realities of poverty, and stolen from us opportunities to worship.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Ryan – I appreciate this reframing of service as an act of worship. I think that is a good way to think about it. I think you are also right that in conversations like these, we do walk a fine line between self-centeredness/individualism and doing things to make ourselves “feel good,” and also responding out of a spirit of love and worship towards another person. I preached a sermon not too long ago on joy, and what I suggested in that text that has in fact been haunting me since I said it is that we, in the era of 24-hour news channels and globalization, need to work at combatting cynicism by learning to name God’s good creation around us and in other people when we see it. Perhaps this is one spiritual discipline of naming God’s good creation in each human that we encounter. Just another thought…

  4. Callie

    Love this post! BVS has a few Catholic Worker Houses that we send volunteers to: San Antonio Catholic Worker House and Su Casa Catholic Worker House in Chicago. Another BVS project, Sisters of the Road in Portland is an amazing day-cafe patterned after the Catholic Worker Houses. I highly recommend connecting yourself to a Dorothy Day Community! 🙂

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