Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I'm going to go fulfill my proper function in the social organism. I'm going to go unbuild walls. We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. - Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1974)
Two Sets of Clothes, 92F
I had come to the craft store to buy a small stand for my candles so that they can be visible onscreen when I zoomcast Morning Prayer on Tuesday mornings. I saw the woman out of the corner of my eye as I pulled into the parking lot.
She was clearly a homeless person, bearing all her worldly goods in a beat-up duffle bag and a couple of fraying plastic bags, She had to have been uncomfortable wearing a couple of layers of clothing in the 92F were experiencing that day. When you have no closet to store your few sets of clothing in, you wear what you want to keep, no matter the temperature.
I tried to look away but she made a beeline for my car the minute I stepped out. “Excuse me! Can I talk to you for a moment?” she began in that loud, semi-urgent voice homeless panhandlers almost always use.
I’m not sure what gives me away in these encounters. Perhaps it’s my non-defensive demeanor or the fact I don’t just mutter something dismissive and walk away. (I wonder if people who scream “Get a job!” at unemployed, sometimes mentally ill, people living on the street ever consider how sadistic that is.) In any case, homeless people always seem to know they have an empathetic ear – if not a possible source of funds - in me.
And so she began.
An Avalanche of Flakes
Hers was a strange tale of being unable to get into local shelters because of a scalp condition that was causing her skin to flake off. Her skin looked like alligator hide, weathered from weeks spent in the sun. She had a crew cut in which a large area of scabby scalp was visible. She insisted upon rubbing the spot to illustrate her dilemma at which point an avalanche of flakes descended to the asphalt below.
I felt my stomach churn and I had to wrestle with myself to resist the urge to step back from her.
She began to tell me about her frustration in dealing with the local health department, a lament that went on for a couple of minutes. The story was getting more and more detailed when I finally raised my hand and said, “OK. Stop. I’m going to give you some money. You don’t have to convince me.”
I opened my wallet, pulled out a $20 and handed it to her.
It Already Belongs to Them
Basil the Great, one of the church leaders of the 4th CE, was clear that “the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.” Such an understanding would be later reflected in the teaching of Francis of Assisi, of whose order I am a professed third order member. He taught that those with more money than they needed to meet their daily life expenditures were essentially stealing from the poor when they refused to give it to those who begged.
Francis was clear: At a basic level, it already belongs to them.
Indeed, Jesus, whose Way I seek to follow as best I can know it, was pretty clear about this: “Give to the one who begs from you; and don’t turn away the one who tries to borrow from you.”
That admonition appears in two of the synoptic gospels as well as in the sayings Gospel of Thomas. And biblical scholars are pretty clear that, unlike much of that which is attributed to him (including the assertion in John’s Gospel that “the poor you will always have with you” that those seeking to avoid living into any kind of social responsibility inevitably cite), this is probably the historical Jesus speaking to us.
It has long been my policy that when I am confronted by beggars, I first consider what’s in my wallet at that moment. If I need what I have to get home or to buy food or gas, I keep it. I say I’m sorry and move on. But if I have more than I need, I will give at least some of it to the human being who is in front of me. If they appear to need it and I don’t, it seems like a no-brainer.
In making that decision, I do not try to second guess them. I’m not a psychic so I can’t know if they are lying or running a scam and I never start with that presumption. Constructions of human nature cast in depravity have never made any sense to me. My time as a defense attorney continues to shape my understandings. I still believe in the presumption of innocence.
Moreover, I’m not their parent. If they use the money for booze or drugs, that’s not my concern. The second the money leaves my hands, it’s no longer mine. In giving them a gift, I’m not entering into a contract with them in which payment is conditioned upon demanded behavior. And truth be told, if I were sleeping on the streets of Orlando tonight, I’d probably want to be intoxicated just to endure the indignities of my situation and the insecurities of the night.
It Wasn’t the Money She Really Wanted
However, this woman didn’t just want my money. And she certainly didn’t want my pity which almost always comes with no small dose of unrecognized condescension. What she wanted was some affirmation of her humanity. And she wasn’t going to let me go until she got it.
“I hate being in this spot,” she said. I could hear the tears she was choking back at that point. “You don’t know what it’s like.”
And she was right. I didn’t. And as I stood there looking at this woman, beaten down by life, I was thankful that I haven’t had whatever experiences led to this aging woman with her two layers of grimy, sweat-soaked clothing carrying around the bags of all her worldly goods. I was deeply grateful that I was not living on the streets of this city known for its hospitality to tourists with money but no small amount of hostility toward the homeless.
Our city motto is “The City Beautiful” and Orlando truly is a beautiful place to live. It’s also a progressive city willing to wrestle with its racist past and protective of its sexual minorities. I am grateful for such beauty every day in this safe, blue urban island in an angry red sea just outside its beltway.
Tragically, that beauty rarely extends to its dealings with the homeless. In the past, draconian laws restricting panhandlers to 2 X 2 blue squares painted on the curbs and creating offenses for lying down on park benches served to keep our downtown sanitized for professional middle class folks like me. That might be a lot of things but whatever beauty that might result is but skin deep.
In a city that has gone out of its way to fund sporting facilities, light rail and shuttle services and neighborhood development city-wide, its track record with the homeless is mediocre on a good day. I stood facing this woman who was probably a good decade younger than myself but whose appearance suggested a much older person, revelations of a difficult life that had taken its toll on her. And I realized how fortunate I am not to know “what it’s like.”
Small Acts Multiplied By Millions
At this point, I felt I had done all I could. I reached out and touched her shoulder, seeking to convey some empathy with that gesture, hoping not to be seen as violating her autonomy. “I’m sorry you’ve had such a hard time,” I said. Leaning down to look directly into her down-cast face, I added, “I really pray things will improve for you.”
At that moment, we both knew our exchange was over. She thanked me and assured me that G-d would bless me. Perhaps. But not necessarily because of this encounter, I thought.
“You, too,” I said and turned to head into the store. She picked up her bags and shuffled off across the parking lot.
In the end, the $20 I gave her was undoubtedly a drop in the deep bucket of whatever physical needs she had brought to our encounter. It certainly wouldn’t pay for the medical attention she needed in one of the premier cities of the world’s wealthiest nation, a country which denies its citizens the guarantee of health care. And it did nothing to address the structural pathologies that generate and then demonize homeless people in the world’s wealthiest nation. Some might even say that my actions, driven by compassion, largely served to rationalize this sadistic status quo. Perhaps.
But it is my prayer that the momentary recognition of her humanity, however passing it might have been, may have been the real gift she desired from me. In the end, it was a gift that cost me nothing more than my time and my willingness to step outside my comfort zone momentarily.
In return, the gift she gave me was a reality check of my fortunate life, much of it unearned, and the duties to others that flow from such good fortune. She also gave me this story and the reflection it required of me prior to writing it. For that I am grateful.
I believe Ursula Le Guin is right when she says that it is small acts, when multiplied by millions, that have the power to transform our world. And I believe that she has an important insight on how that happens: unbuilding walls that separate us one from another.
Unbuilding walls, much like building them, never occurs in one day. But perhaps it’s chance encounters in parking lots like this one where that unbuilding begins. Today, this is my prayer.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2021