He is tired and ill from sleeping out in the weather, and when he speaks there is a sense of numbness in his voice. He is waiting, but only God knows for what.
I am rendered silent in the face of this waiting. What can I say to a man who has no home?
His name is William, and he left his native Jamaica after a string of 10 devastating hurricanes--only to lose most of his family and all of his possessions in Hurricane Katrina. In the years since Katrina, his life has gone from bad to worse.
He talks quietly of his losses. The job that no longer exists. The woman he loved who was murdered, and the woman he tried to love, but couldn’t--too much pain and anger coursing through both of their veins. The move from “home” to the streets.
I touch his arm lightly, and look him in the eyes as he speaks. It is all I have to offer.
He is matter-of-fact about these things. He does not whine or complain. He just explains…and he waits. For someone to give him the work he longs to do. For a place to call his own. For someone who will be able to love away the pain and the memories.
And I am shamed into silence...knowing that I will go home with Dear Friend when this evening is finished. Knowing that my work--the work I feel blessed to do--will begin again in the morning, and that, tonight, I will be warm and sheltered and loved. Knowing that my waiting is over.
I doubt I will ever see William again, but our brief time together at a Room in the Inn dinner has given him lodging in my mind and heart. He has been my living, breathing Advent lesson, and I have been unable to forget our conversation.
Part of me wishes that I could...
That’s because I ran full tilt into the Wall of Doubt again as my conversation with William went on. This happens frequently when I must put a face to issues of poverty and social inequality.
It is one thing to talk about “homelessness” or “the homeless”--it is quite another to look into the weary eyes of a human being who tells you that he slept in a bus shelter last night because he had nowhere else to go.
The Wall of Doubt is what I encounter every time I am faced with the failure of common decency--and let’s be honest and acknowledge that this is what is at the root of homelessness and abject poverty. These things are based in the failure of human beings to love and care for one another in the most basic ways.
That Wall is the rock on which my faith is tested--the stone that threatens to shatter what little confidence I have that there is a good and benevolent God in this universe.
Much better minds than mine have wrestled with the theodicy problem through the ages. I am under no illusion that I will be the one to solve the puzzle. But the problem takes on new urgency as I consider the fact that there is nothing I can do to help William.
Or is there?
My feeling of helplessness drove me to write to my friend Under There (UT), who blogs at Under the Overpasses. UT runs a shelter for homeless people—and he writes beautifully about those he serves.
I wrote to him about my experience with William and confessed my angst over the encounter:
There are no religious platitudes that will apply here--I've never felt so inadequate in my life. I had absolutely nothing to offer him, except my prayers. But I have to say--that felt REALLY hollow. What good are prayers when you don’t have a job or a roof over your head? When everyone you love is gone?
How do you handle that? At least you have resources to offer--I had nothing but a willingness to listen and some totally inadequate words...
Do we do more harm than good by going to hang out with these folks for a few hours? Do we just remind them that we can go home after dinner...and they can't? I think if I were them, I would be so bitter about that---but I also know that many homeless people feel invisible, and just being treated like a person, rather than a social problem, makes a difference...
I don't want to sound like a guilty liberal (though I guess I feel like one). I just want to know--what can I do that will REALLY make a difference? I told William that I would pray for him every day--and I will keep that promise. But what else can I do?
Thanks, and bless you for reading this far...
UT was kind enough to write me back, and we have engaged in a conversation about helpful responses to homelessness. He has graciously give his permission for me to share his words with you (I have edited some things out for brevity and I have interwoven our conversations to try and give a coherent overview of what he had to say):
You have just discovered why a ministry of presence is so difficult. It's natural for the problem-solver mode to kick in and to say "here, let me help you." The gift of simply listening, as powerless and painfully inadequate to help as it made you feel, was a true gift to that man.
Most of the people trained to help him locate the disappearing resources he seeks are overwhelmed, overworked, and considering another career because of how impossible the task is. When he walks into any social service agency he will be another number to get the facts from and then "next..."
Simply being present and actually giving a damn about what he was saying is incredibly important. Some people on the streets go for weeks without actually being listened to. Everyone is too busy doing good to listen--or the ones who do listen, do it out of guilt and are always sneaking peeks at their watches.
The survival skills of people on the street are incredible. They can tell when someone is feigning interest and when it is real. One of our local social workers at the hospital told me about a lady who, when she asked her what she wanted, replied, "I just want someone to listen to me bitch about what is going on." Pretty profound and honest. Heck, sometimes I want that.
You should feel inadequate. That is normal. Liberal guilt is not always a such a bad thing. Remember that many of our conservative friends feel none at all. I seriously doubt that William felt bitter about anything. If there was someone there who felt that way, he or she probably stayed away from conversation. You may have thought that person was just shy or quiet. But your Jamaican friend knew why you were there and he opened up to you and shared his story. Instead of saying, "Lady, will you find me a job?", he asked you to listen, and it sounds like you did that...You did not show up and run roughshod all over his person, by glibly saying, "bless you, I am praying for you," and then disappear. You gave him your presence.
Yes, on one level, it is not enough—-but on the other hand, neither is the dehumanizing social work that most people experience. He deserves help and you gave one form---now someone or some group needs to give him the other kind...
The day labor thing is a curse...Most of it was based on a very fragile bubble. Most day labor is landscaping or construction-related around new homes and existing wealth. When the luxury houses stopped selling here, the day labor was one of the first things to go. The faltering economy has impacted those who have no commitment from their employers except “Maybe tomorrow” in a very hard way.
There is a sort of word-of-mouth aspect to day labor. People hear from a “friend who knows someone related to someone who heard it from a reliable source” that there is work in this town or in this region. They chase the labor, and often it has dried up before they get there.
Day labor is a great thing temporarily, but unless we train people with GED/literacy and job skills programs, they are most vulnerable. Unfortunately, too many of my guests--immigrants, laborers with low educational backgrounds, people with felonies, etc.--are caught in the cycle of never-ending day labor employment. They deserve better because they want to work.
You learned something very valuable--and, dear Doxy, with the soap box you have built, you should do something about it. Your experience should be voiced in a parish newsletter, blogs, and whatever other official forums you have…people need to know that the homeless are not lazy. They are desperate for work. Most of the ones I know are. Your Jamaican friend would love to have the opportunity to work his way out of crisis with dignity. The number of lazy homeless people is no greater than the number of lazy people in society at large.
I asked UT what he thought that Christians should do to address the issue of homelessness. Here is what he said [emphases are mine]:
I think what I’m trying to get at is the one sermon I can never seem to shut up about--getting the church to lavish its treasures onto the world for the kingdom of God.
Of course, by that, I do not really mean just money. In my humble opinion, the real jewels of the church are the actual people and the gifts they have. We are pretty good at releasing funds for charity, but we never really get to address the root causes of the symptoms that charity relieves.
Justice really demands that we do more than provide overnight shelters and soup kitchens. That does not mean we do away with crisis assistance, but from my perspective (admittedly a basement-level perspective), it seems that we must recognize their limitations and never let them become substitutes for structural changes to remedy the root causes.
I think we need to revamp our existing technologies of compassion to include the brains and the talents of people in our pews who would never volunteer to go down and serve a meal at a shelter. That does not necessarily mean that they have hearts of stone. Their God-given passions may lie somewhere else. They may have gifts that, unfortunately, have only been valued in the secular business world. I have seen what can happen in places like Atlanta when you give bankers, lawyers, architects, real estate professionals and business people a “kingdom vision.” It's like the Holy Spirit kicks them in the ass and says, "Those are your spiritual gifts, doofus--stop feeling second best to the clergy and social workers and get out and make a difference with what you have."
The thrill of discovering "This is what I was meant to do, and I enjoy doing it" makes all the difference in the world. I think the fashionable term for what I have in mind is "social entrepreneurship," but on a much more simplistic scale. Justice demands that we find a way to provide your friend at the RITI with opportunity. He deserves the opportunity to have the dignity of working his way out of the famine he is in. It just seems that is right and fair, or in other words, justice...
Whenever I imagine things like nonprofit day labor projects that employ the homeless, while providing community improvement for poverty stricken areas that are crying out for hope, I know that it means time and effort and it is simply easier to write a check to the local soup kitchen to feed the homeless.
I also know that I--like most clergy types--really do not know how to operate a business and make it thrive--but our parishes are usually packed full of people who do. We need to tap them and give them a vision and then turn their imagination and know-how loose on creating real opportunities. If we do not, charity--without tangible hope for escaping the need for charity--can sap the human spirit by demeaning people who come to resent it as a way of life.
I guess what I am getting at is creating hope based not simply on warm fuzzy feelings, but real jobs that lead to better opportunities out of homelessness.
People want to work. My guests will do back breaking work and come in feeling proud of themselves about it. You may not be able to help your Jamaican friend directly, but that does not mean that you cannot do something. I hope his story continues to percolate through your consciousness and I hope it finds its way to your writer's voice. You are known for stirring things up every now and then, right?
I am sorry, I hate to give you a sermon about it. I am proud that you felt like crap over the helplessness of the situation. It means you are fully human and you have a conscience. I am also more pleased than you can know that you listened to his story. Not many people are willing to do that. In short, Doxy, glad to know you.
UT was way too kind to me. I recognize his desire to encourage people in their generous impulses. It’s all about baby steps.
But I am coming to realize that baby steps are not enough anymore. Jesus didn’t say take baby steps. Jesus said “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor.” Jesus said “When they sue you for your coat, give them your cloak as well.” Jesus said “Turn the other cheek,” and “Love your enemies.”
The way I read it, Jesus did not believe in baby steps. Jesus was all about real sacrifice. And I wonder what I am willing to sacrifice for William? What will I give up so that he can have a roof over his head and work that will grant him dignity?
Do I really believe anything I say I believe?
As I type this, I am sitting in a warm house, and Dear Friend is bustling about doing whatever he is doing at the moment. There is plenty of food in the fridge, and there is a pile of Christmas presents on the dining room table. I am safe, and loved, and sheltered.
I will write and I will pray. I will do my best to “stir things up.” But it is not enough.
Because somewhere, out in the cold and wet North Carolina night, William is waiting...
Update--UT has posted some additional thoughts on this issue: My Slow and Steady Conversion.