I have a friend who experienced homelessness for about two years. She struggled through Michigan winters and often spent time panhandling for donations on the street. Now, things have turned around immensely for the better, but those were painful years.
In addition to having a desperation for money, she had a desperation to be seen. Truly seen as herself, behind the labels and stigma. People experiencing homeless are often seen to the degree of not being seen. In other words, people notice them and then do everything they can to avoid them.
About ten years ago at a conference, I heard Ben Johnston-Krase say something that stuck with a lot of people. He shared what often goes through our minds when someone is panhandling and asking us for money.
He talked about this back-and-forth dialogue that happens instantly inside our own minds.
“Do you have $5?” we’re asked.
Ben slowed down this inner dialogue.
“Well, I do have $5. Maybe I should give it. . . ”
“But. . . how can I know that this person won’t spend it on alcohol. No, I better not.”
“But. . . I don’t know that this person will spend it that way. What if he’s hungry right now?”
“Oh, I know. . . I’ll just go down the street and buy this person a sandwich. Then I’ll know.”
“But I’m not his Mommy. Shouldn’t he have the dignity of choosing how he spends his money? Why should that be up to me? Yeah, I should probably give the $5.”
“But. . . what if I lean down to give it and he steals my wallet? What then?”
“Why I am I so afraid? He didn’t ask me to be afraid.”
Ben Johnston-Krase said that in the midst of this back-and-forth dialogue, we either give or don’t give the money. Then, we often step away asking ourselves, “Did I do the right thing?”
Instead, Ben shared that maybe this isn’t the best question. Maybe in these moments we need to see our neighbors as our neighbors and say, “How is this person’s liberation bound up together with mine? How am I called into solidarity with this neighbor? How is my life called to address the larger, systemic forces of poverty?”
Perhaps we see one another better when we ask deeper questions.
This post is a part of a series this week. Feel free to check out the other pieces too: