RE: Harry Griffin’s post: “Sharing a ride for a student to the Homeless Shelter.”
I spent last Tuesday morning moving tables and chairs from an uptown hotel to a non-profit that helps people trying to turn an empty house into a furnished home.
I spent the day in a T-shirt and jeans, working with day laborers, riding in the elevator with immigrant construction workers, and passing through the kitchen and basement with the hotel’s “behind the scenes” employees, getting a glimpse, however small into how hard it is to survive in this city on seven dollars an hour.
As I rolled tables and chairs down the sidewalk, I saw other people too. Hotel guests. Bankers and office workers in suits, strutting down McDowell street, looking very important on their cell phones. “Click, clack,” as their heels and oxfords pushed them quickly down the sidewalk.
I found myself thinking, “I really belong to their world,” (with my masters degree and closet full of dress clothes). But that day I was on the other side, perceived as just another laborer.
Two worlds collided that morning in conversation and shared work. I felt connected with those men as we talked about our families, our struggles to find jobs, and college basketball. Was it a connection for them? Or merely survival? Being friendly to insure that the day went smoothly and the boss might give them work tomorrow?
Whatever they felt, I find myself thinking about Corey, Carlton, and those paint splattered, work worn men in the elevator. Wondering if they got paid. Wondering where they are sleeping tonight. Wondering how they have the motivation to get up and go back to work each morning.
I asked in my journal, “Why is it that these worlds are so separate? How is it that I can move so easily from one to the other, laughing with Carlton as we heave the heavy table onto the truck, and then driving across town to enjoy a $4 cup of tea at my favorite coffee shop?”
Privilege. Wealth. Education. Luck…Essentially being born in the right place at the right time.
I have had many such collisions over the years, intentionally and unintentionally spending time with men and women “on the margins.” But the encounters don’t get any less jarring. The questions never get answered. That afternoon I went to Speak Up to write, and was frustrated as a man disrupted the workshop with his intoxicated ramblings. My compassion from the morning turned to indignation. I felt entitled to that time. To be able to find peace in a few moments of writing. I was ready to go home. To get back to my world. Away from the rawness of the struggles I had been surrounded by all day. Ready to be comfortable again.
As I reflect on those feelings, I am confronted by the absurdity of my selfishness. There I was in a writing workshop meant primarily for people dealing with homelessness and I was annoyed when the struggles of homelessness “disrupted” our time.
Maybe that’s the point.
Maybe our encounters with those the world calls “the least of these,” help us to plumb the depths of our hearts, finding out how we really feel about ourselves and our world. They help us to experience the profound human connection that can cut through lines of race, and wealth, and background, and see the evil of the ways that we have constructed separation with these categories.
It reminds us that we are not all that different. That our security is much more tenuous than we would like to acknowledge. In the words of my friend Harry:
It seems all too easy to run out of money and not be able to pay rent. It seems all too easy to fail to get along with someone in an important relationship, even to the point of being asked to live somewhere else.
It seems all too easy to be sick or hurt or unable.
Maybe this is why Jesus told us that we would encounter him in the one who asks for a cup of water, or food, or shelter. In essence telling us that to fully encounter the presence of God we can’t live lives separated from those in need.
I hold out hope that these interactions are actually beneficial for the poor, too. I know that often they are not. Often they are unconsciously rooted in a desire to pat ourselves on the back. Unintentionally tinged with paternalism. Unknowingly disempowering.
In spite of that, I act with Harry’s desire:
I want to help those who are not able to, for whatever reason, for whatever period of time, no matter the circumstance…
I long to help. I hope I can help. I hope I can do good. I want to do good.
And pray with Thomas Merton:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you…
I choose to believe that my decisions to “collide” with my neighbor in need can be used by God in spite of my imperfect intentions.