Sunday, October 17, 2010
Who Are the Homeless?
Her bag could have been from Fendi, a chic accessory joining the crisp, cool air to give notice that fall had come to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th St. The crumpled papers in her hand might have been a playbill from the latest show that the most fashionable boots in the City had tromped by droves to see. The swirl of her conversation could just as well have been recounting her latest visit to Harry Winston’s or De Beers there on fashionable 5th Avenue.
But it wasn’t.
Instead, her conversation over coffee sitting on her bag in the shadow of 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church was an orientation of sorts. This, her first night on the streets of New York City revolved around overzealous policemen who kicked, fined or screamed profanity at her. Prior to tonight she had tried to resolve her “circumstances” by sleeping on the subway. With her bag and knit sweater primly tucked around her, she survived for months in this manner, by day the fiancé of a Chinese pastor, by night a hounded denizen of the public transportation system.
I didn’t understand.
Why would this spirited, Asian woman be sleeping on the street? I began to ask questions, to discover the reasons behind her circumstances. Had she spoken to her fiancé the pastor? Did the church know she was here? How long had they been paying the fines levied on her for her nomadic public slumber? I needed a peg to hang this on, an entry point into her world.
She rebuked me.
“I could tell you more about my circumstances, but you couldn’t begin to understand. You would think you did, but you don’t. You would misunderstand and tell someone. And you’d be wrong. You don’t have the perspective of God. Would you like to know why I am here tonight?” Mutely, I shook my head. “I’m here in complete surrender to the will of God.”
She was right.
I needed a tidy explanation. I wanted her to fit into a category that explained her presence there across from the Fendi store, sleeping on the steps. As her rebuke sunk in, I knew I asked questions to discover how she was different from me. How she had fallen. Where she had chosen unwisely; who had failed her, harmed her, victimized her. So that she would be a “homeless” and I her encourager, rescuer, reaching down across the gulf to show my goodness.
Who is my neighbor?
A question asked of Jesus, that ancient sage, designed not to enable further outreach or care for a new friend, but to categorize. To place someone in a group different from oneself, and so to insulate from up close, personal love and care. And so Jesus told a story, about a man in need. A man treated roughly by life, robbed of his dignity and left alongside the road to rot. A man much like the lady I met. But wise Jesus told the story not to focus on a victim who needed help, but on the startling responses from those walking alongside the street. The fashionable, acceptable residents of that city walked right by the man. They knew he belonged to a different category, a man who had made poor choices. Given time, they might help, but circumstances dictated otherwise. But the hated Samaritan walked up and entered the world of the man by the road. Without judging his circumstances, he brought care, and according to Jesus, demonstrated that he was that man’s neighbor. And then I realized, it didn’t matter how she got there…
Eiku is my neighbor.