Monday, January 6, 2014

The Homeless Problem & a Right Attitude

...even to the least of these...

The homeless population in my town is getting a lot of press as of late. The debate is gathering momentum with various concerns being raised almost daily; drugs, drinking, mental illness, hardship stories, infringement on businesses, community reactions, City Council decisions, panhandling, sleeping in the town square, on the sidewalks, bathing in the fountain, urine in the store doorways. It is becoming a troubling issue for our community. But there is something greater at stake than just a problem that needs fixing. It’s the human side of things, the practical business of keeping citizens safe, the town welcoming, and helping those in need.

Have you ever been homeless? Let that sink in for a moment. How would you want to be treated if you were? Hmmm. Well? Ouch! With kindness? What would Jesus do? That’s an easy one. We know what he would do. He would care. Jesus cared for the hungry, poor, fishermen, lepers, unclean, cheats, adulterers, beggars, infirm, sinners. He seemed to choose some of the most unlovely people to care about—and he didn’t seem to like the religious all that much.

I decided to ask a pastor, a man in his mid-seventies, his opinion about the homeless problem and the press its receiving. He smiled, a sad sort of smile, his eyes reflecting a deeper emotion, his tone soft. “The people of Chico should not be so arrogant. If you’ve ever been homeless you wouldn’t be. I can’t speak to this without my bias showing.” It was then that I remembered his story; a sixteen year old runaway from Wisconsin thumbing his way to California's cattle country, working as a cow hand, picking up jobs where ever, asking to sleep in the jail so he could get warm on a cold night. One morning with only a few coins to buy a cup of joe, his insides screaming with hunger pangs, he stepped inside a restaurant. A kind waitress took pity on him, serving him a full breakfast paid on her tab, his eyes teared up when he had shared the story with the congregation. Later, God used a caring man, one who commanded his respect, to demonstrate a path to God’s love. Someone who saw his potential and was not afraid to “show up” and help a teenager who was a mess.

But it’s not that simple is it? A few months ago I was with a group of women on a business lunch at a local establishment when the conversation turned to the increasing numbers of homeless and displaced persons in Chico. The comments flew. Chico shouldn’t put up with it. Homeless people are coming to Chico in droves because they’ve heard Chico welcomes them. It’s turning off newcomers to the Chico area. It’s hard on businesses, ruining downtown. I found myself mentally evaluating their comments, checking off most of the concerns as ‘true’ and agreeing that the City should address this in a proactive, precise way. Yet. I was disappointed; the conversation was incomplete. Even though I could agree with what they were saying, my feelings did not match up with theirs. It seemed as if the homeless were being grouped as “less than,” dismissed with some sort of callousness of attitude with no human face on it. I didn’t feel as they did. No, not anymore. Something had revealed my superiority-complex a few years back. In the process, I had awakened. No longer could I  easily write off  the homeless “lifers” or  “down-on-their-luck” or substance “users.”
* * *
It had been a busy day that day when God woke me up. I was rushing to get home, my turn to host the Ladies Book Dinner. I pulled up to the gas station. A strange man was standing by the pumping island at the only open spot, he made me feel uneasy. Oh well, no choice. I removed the nozzle as I furtively glanced at him. He was wearing a black trench coat and a fedora, his longish hair resting on his coat collar. His dark beard was trimmed and neat. He was clean, the coat was clean. A black mutt sat by his side. He moved toward me, his head bent down. “Could you spare a couple of bucks?” he whispered. I shook my head, muttering, “No, sorry.” His eyes paused a second, looking at my eyes. Then he stepped back but didn’t leave. It was making me nervous. I got back in my car. My daughter asked me what he had said to me. She thought I should give him some money. I didn’t think so, and I wasn’t going to either. I wasn’t going to contribute to his addictions! The arguments were all there, the way I had always viewed those begging by the side of the road or in store parking lots. People need to be responsible for themselves. Then, another thought entered into my thinking. It began hammering away at me, causing disquiet. If you have done it for even one of the least of these, my brothers, you have done it unto me. I ignored the voice as it continued on in a repetitive cycle, If you have done it  for even one of the least of these. .... These were Christ’s words. I was determined to not listen to that little voice, you have done it unto me. The pump shut off. Time to go, finally! In my flustered state, I didn’t put the nozzle back. I started my car and began to pull forward. “Thunk!” What was that? I looked back. The nozzle had popped out of my car and lay on the cement. The man was coming over to pick it up, his glance met mine. How foolish I felt, my face flushed. I drove around to the backside of the station to get on the street toward my home. As I left, I saw the man and his dog in the crosswalk heading in the opposite direction. I felt sickened inside. My thoughts scrambling with embarrassment and guilt. Was that a test? Was he an angel? Was that the Holy Spirit’s whisper?  If so, I had failed the test miserably. I had ignored the inner prompting because it didn’t fit with my rigid notion that was dictating my behavior, the belief that if you help someone like that it means you are enabling them. It was then that I knew I was wrong in my thinking. If God is prompting you to do it, do it! The encounter cured me. I have changed my ways and am more sensitive to God’s leading. I often pray for the homeless or panhandlers that I meet after helping them out. I will ask their first name and tell them that I'm going to pray for them. And, I do. Sometimes I say "God bless you," hoping they will sense his care through my care.

I cannot fix the homeless problem but I can care. I can support the various organizations that offer a meal, shelter, treatment, counseling, spiritual guidance, or a fresh start. I can treat the homeless with compassion for when we treat the least of these with human dignity we have done it for Jesus. Jesus cared, shouldn't I?

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