God, who is for us the Wholly-Other, appears only in the place of the other, in the “sacrament of our brother”.
Hans Urs Von Balthasar
I know he’s going to be there: Standing at the end of the exit ramp for 3rd Street. Rain or shine, hot or cold, he’ll be there holding his sign: Anything helps. God bless. Black and bearded, frizzy hair sticking out from his hat, eyes popping with bright intensity, I pass him several times a week on the way to the gym, work appointments, or more damning, Starbucks.
People struggling with homelessness often leave me – as they do many comfortable, middle class Americans – feeling embarrassed and conflicted. If I’m honest, I usually just hope there’ll be enough cars between them and myself so I don’t have to make eye contact, because once that happens, once that single glance betrays my acknowledgment of their presence, I’m officially on the hook. I can cannot claim inaccessibility nor ignorance of their presence and need, but instead have to choose: do I help . . . or not?
A look, an idle gaze arrested by another, causing me to see them. It changes everything, and with my gentleman at the exit, that’s exactly what has haunted me for months: we see each other. Not much happens, I haven’t given him more than a few bucks, but he obviously recognizes me, and when he does, he looks in my eyes – and nods. For the longest time, I couldn’t look back being so overcome with embarrassment; but then one day, I finally nodded back.
What is that like? To know that your very existence causes others pain and embarrassment? That they see you and immediately pretend they did not? Staring through you, beyond you, anywhere but at you.
Bloomington has a fairly large visible homeless population, more than I’ve come to expect from university towns, so opportunity for interaction abounds, from the momentary like my moments at the exit, or more prolonged like when we pass a large group by the library or park. Yet no matter the moment, I feel that inner conflict arise: I can’t give because I don’t have any cash. Or I do have cash, but it’s more than I’m willing to give (may $5 but not $20). Or I do have cash, and in acceptable denominations, but no time. Or I have cash and time, but the light is about to change . . . or . . . or . . .
See, while I’ve spent much of my ministry career volunteering in events and with groups designed to help this community, I have somehow managed to remain comfortably uncomfortable with them, my experiences always occurring within controlled and temporary environments designed to insulate my previous feelings: food and clothing warehouses, cleaning shelters, Catholic Workers, or, at my most interactive, serving and eating meals together. Once, I even took a group of students to spend a “night in homeless solidarity” by sleeping in cardboard boxes, but the experience was so fraught with church lock-in tropes (t-shirts, live music, late-night card games, and hot chocolate) and concessions to our weakness (fire barrels, North Face coats and sleeping bags, food before, during and, of course, a group trip to IHOP after!) as to be almost mockingly ironic for those truly suffering through the cold, hungry nights.
These memories swam through my head this last Sunday as the New Testament text was being read. It was the story from Acts 3 where Peter and John healed the crippled beggar in front of the Temple’s “Beautiful Gate,” which I’ve heard scores of times, but perhaps the reason it resonated with me this go-round was recognizing all the looking that occurred:
When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them (vv3-5).
As the priest began expounding his thoughts on this text, the looking continued to bounce around my heart. I remembered the man at the exit and thought of the other homeless who were that moment – as they did every week – gathering up and down the very street over which our church so prominently stood. I thought of my experiences at Cherith Brook, the Catholic Worker in Kansas City: of people standing outside on a frigid January morning, waiting to be let in for breakfast, a hot shower, and a change of clothes. I wondered how many of those beautiful souls I ever actually saw and how many opportunities for engaging humanity had been left on the table.
And, ever the Bible nerd, I thought about the context of this story as I listened. About how one of the “three pillars of Jewish piety” was giving to the poor, about how the Jesus movement fundamentally took place on the margins and in the gutter of northern Judea, among the poor, the weak, the powerless, and the dispossessed. About how the early Church followed this example by refusing to curry favor with the educated class, the religious and socio-political elites, but instead saw their ranks swell with the very same people their Master attracted, seeing in the faces of the outcasts the face of their beloved Lord.
But it was not to last.
It seems that in neither the ancient Jewish nor the modern Christian conception of the poor live up to the intention. Neither group approaches them on their own merits, as part of the Great Chain of Being in which all life is connected; rather, while Jews saw them as Divinely-instituted steps toward piety, Christians (especially Americans) see them as barriers, embarrassing conflicts to somehow “resolve” through grudging charity.
The Jews saw their poor as a monolithic group in need of charity because God has simply made it so; wretches laid in their path by God as a test to see if they will prove their devotion.
The American way (all too often understood as as “Christian”) is to separate the poor into camps, the deserving and undeserving. Those who “work for a living” and those who “beg for a living”; those who have had a few bad breaks and their indolent foils who just use their cash to get drunk.
In either case, the “people of God” have generally failed to truly see the poor. And as usual, it’s because we have failed to remember.
We have forgotten that we are those poor, have failed to see them. Have forgotten that without recognition of and solidarity with our brothers and sisters experiencing homelessness, poverty, and pain, we are not the Body of Christ, but the elites who saw His powerful simplicity as a threat. We are truly a far cry from the earth-shattering innocence of Saint Francis, or of the modern Pope borrowing his name, who claims the truly Christian approach to the poor is to seize every opportunity to give, and to do so without the least regard for what they might do with our gift, and we are light years away from a powerful leader lamenting that Christians are taking all the government’s opportunities for helping the poor, as when Julian the Apostate (d. 363) complained about “the impious Galileans” who “support our poor in addition to their own.”
I certainly fail to meet this ideal on a daily basis. Except now with him.
Though the vast majority of my interactions with the homeless population end with me suddenly becoming very interested in my phone, there’s something unique about that one man I always run into at the exit which leads me to respond differently. Nothing extravagant. I just look at him. Maybe it’s because he seems to recognize me, because he walks toward me, looks intently at me with those bright eyes, and nods – and for once, I look. And nod back.
All I do is nod, but maybe it’s enough.
Enough for me to “look intently” as Peter did – to not allow this man’s existence to be an embarrassment for me because I cannot or do not give him anything, because his circumstance shames mine by its very existence. Maybe, in this moment, “looking” is what’s required.
Of course, it’s not really enough. I can’t congratulate myself on the audacity of eye-contact when I pass so many opportunities to actually, tangibly help this man and his community. And it’s just a bit ironic that I struggled to fully engage with this man’s humanity until the moment I saw him engage with mine.
Plus, if I were to continue nodding but never offering anything – a buck, a meal, a ride – he will probably (and understandably) stop being so polite. But as I twist myself in knots of shame for my lack of compassion, maybe the choice to look him fully in the face and visibly acknowledge his presence without betraying uncomfortability is more humanizing than a tenner given with eyes askance and cheeks red with embarrassment.
Obviously, if I could combine both aspects, I might actually attain to Pope Francis’ rule of giving without concern for the way the money is spent and engaging with their humanity through “looking in their eyes and touching their hands.” Francis goes on: “People who live on the streets understand right away when the other person is really interested . . . One can look at a homeless person and see him as a person or else as if he were a dog, and they notice this different way of looking at them.”
They know. They see us. The embarrassment we feel of their very existence is etched on our faces and corresponds to the daily wounds carved on their hearts which many have ceased to feel. I would drink too.
While their signs may be asking for food, money, or, well, anything, I wonder if perhaps like the beggar at the Beautiful Gate, they no longer have the ability to even think of the thing they need most: something infinitely more healing even than healthy limbs. For, while it truly would be miraculous to see a man’s legs restored, I wonder if the greater miracle might be for the people of God to have their sight restored by learning to search the eyes of the poor – to look intently upon the same poor, weak, powerless, and dispossessed Jesus saw, and see them. To keep our heads up and eyes fixed, to stare others’ pain and suffering full in the face, and nod with recognition.
Maybe once we’ve returned the gaze of our Master in the other, we can then turn to the easier task of healing their legs.