Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Grace, interrupted

Courtesy of Slouching Mom, I learned of this roundtable with a very interesting question.

Write about your personal experience(s), how you are dealing with or how you are trying to deal with---where you are in your journey---the principles of justice, forgiveness, compassion, and/or tolerance. Select one, two, three or all, or speak about the converse of the principles if that's more relevant.I look forward to what you have to say, truly.

Living near downtown Memphis, I often have occasion to see people who are outside my socio-economic group. Way outside. People whose lives look more like existence to me. People whose lives are so outside my idea of normal that I cannot begin to comprehend what a day in their lives would feel like.

These people are poor, desperately poor. They don't treat their minor anxieties with lexapro, wellbutrin, paxil, or one of the many other pharmaceutical aids so common in my circle. Maybe because these medications wouldn't even make a dent in the very real problems that they experience. "The blues"? Um, not.

The common belief among downtown residents is that, if one gives money, food, drink, or time to these people, that encourages them to beg for more. Heck, I've said the same words myself. Repeatedly. Especially to folks who don't live downtown but do visit, and who generally give money to panhandlers just to avoid the hassle of being accosted.

But what do you do when that marginal person sees you sitting on your front porch of your brand new house, approaches, and asks for money for food? What do you do?

My gut reaction was to run inside and lock the door. But instead I determined that it wouldn't hurt me at all to tell him to wait outside while I made him a sandwich. (In the interest of fair and accurate reporting, I must also state that the man really didn't want a sandwich, he wanted money. He asked what kind of sandwich it was going to be, and seemed a little annoyed when I told him it would be peanut butter.)

And when I went inside and started making a sandwich, my efforts were thwarted my my husband, who chased the man away.

My husband's reaction wasn't unreasonable. It was as morally correct as my own response. He was protecting his family, his neighborhood. Was that man dangerous? Would he force his way into our house when I gave him the food? Would this sandwich be the first of many handouts the man would then expect from our family? Without the right answers to those questions, my husband had to do what he did.

I felt good when I was making that sandwich. He looked hungry and I could do something about it. A couple of pieces of bread and some peanut butter would have helped him get some relief from that hunger. And the knowledge that a stranger would prepare food for him, the same food she would prepare for her own children, would give him some peace. That moment, almost two years ago, had so much potential for grace.

So what do I do now? I haven't seen that man since. Our neighborhood has proven to be a place where homeless folks are not welcomed. We've "cleaned up" that area. Our crime is almost nonexistent and we feel safe. Insulated.

Recently I read an article about a nearby soup kitchen and I felt a tug. A call to action. Maybe even a "calling." Does that mean I need to quit my job and start working there? I don't know. Maybe. Does it mean that I need to drop one of my other activities and become an active volunteer at such a place? Again, maybe. I know that food heals. I know that service to others is the best work we can do. I think I need to find out what I can do to help. Even if it's just making peanut butter sandwiches.


alan said...

the neighborhood we live in in chicago is very heavily populated by homeless, and there's something I've noticed about them in general that has made me decide not to give them a chance. A couple things, actually. First, they don't say please, they don't say thank you, the act like they're entitled to whatever they demand of passers by. Second, those that actually want to improve their lives aren't sitting on the sidewalk asking for handouts, they are asking for help, and trying to do something for themselves.

Mom said...

You say, "I know that service to others is the best work we can do." How did you come to this conclusion? Have you considered that providing for the family might be the best work one can do? Are those different, or just two sides of the same coin? How does the humanity of the person who cannot provide for himself/herself fit into the framework?

From the Mom perspective, I am glad to see that some of the lessons you were taught seem to have become part of your reality: manners really do matter!

Kaleigh said...

I see that providing for the family definitely falls under the umbrella of "service to others". And I also think that as my children's primary role models, the husband and I have a responsibility to model that kind of behavior. And bring the kids along whenever we can, so they can see firsthand that helping other people benefits not only the recipient of such aid but also the giver. I also do what I can to explain to the kids that not everyone has the ability (whether mental, emotional, environmental, whatever) to take care of him/herself. And that to those of us to whom much is given (again, mental, emotional, environmental, economic, etc.), much is expected (not sure how that phrase really goes). So we need to give - time, skills, energy, money - whatever we can.

And I think I'm partially answering your last question. In helping others, we definitely help ourselves, too (at least most of the time).

And on the practical side, there's a program in my neighborhood that is looking for volunteers...women to mentor women who are trying to come out of poverty. I think that's a perfect fit. Working one-on-one with a person who is trying to make a better life, for herself (and possibly her family).

alan said...

yes to the mentoring! help those that are trying to help themselves, not to those expecting handouts.

Mom said...

"Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more." Luke 12:48b