Face To Face With Homelessness in New Orleans

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I have been in New Orleans for the past nine days—first on vacation with my family, and now staying on solo for the NPM (National Association of Pastoral Musicians) conference, where I’m presenting this week.

We have so enjoyed our time here—from swamp tours to beignets to fabulous jazz, it was a great trip with the kids. But I was not prepared for the sheer scope of the face of Jesus in the homeless population that I would encounter here.

The presence of people suffering homelessness has been a cattle prod to my conscience for twenty years. I remember going to work at the church and feeling the hypocrisy of driving past the people holding signs as if they weren’t even there—when I was headed to work at a CHURCH. Eventually I started keeping a stash of protein and Nutri Grain bars in the vehicles to pass out. It feels insufficient. But it’s better than refusing to make eye contact at all.

I always think about Lazarus lying at the rich man’s gate, begging for scraps and being ignored. That rich guy probably wasn’t evil. Probably, he just was uncomfortable, didn’t know how to help, and so he didn’t make eye contact.

I also think about Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate, and the beggar there who couldn’t walk. That story stands out to me because it says he asked for alms, and then Peter responded by saying, “Look at me.” Then the Bible says: He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them.

The eye contact raises expectations in the person on the receiving end of this equation—and that’s why we don’t do it. That’s why we ignore them. Eye contact compels us to step in in some way. But if we can’t even look in the eyes of Jesus in the person suffering homelessness, then… Well, it says something about our commitment to the faith. Something we probably don’t want to know about ourselves.

So I have made a real effort to make eye contact —to SEE the people who stand at highway intersections back home. After twenty years, I know many faces and some things about them, both positive and negative.

But I was completely and totally unprepared for the magnitude of the homeless population in New Orleans.

Camps, apparently long-term, beneath the interstates (in the shade—very important). Right out in the open. A man sprawled on the sidewalk sleeping on Canal Street, a handful of steps from restaurants that would cost my family $150 to eat there. Another man using an umbrella to block the sun as he sleeps against a lovely old wrought-iron fence. A woman, her face a study in shame and hopelessness, sitting on a three-hundred-year-old stoop with a sign that says, “First time homeless.” I have seen literally hundreds of homeless people in the week I have been here.

Hundreds of the face of Jesus, looking at me.

The first day, the first HOUR of the first day, I should say, I pulled singles out of my wallet, just to do SOMETHING, knowing perfectly well that if we emptied our wallets, it would only take care of a dozen of these people for a day, maybe two. And yet–and yet! We are on vacation, spending money on ourselves!

Eventually, I had to resort to the very thing I despise: walking by without acknowledging. Food is expensive here, even for me. Do I go buy six orders of beignets and hand them out? Relatively cheap, but totally useless calories. Do I spend a hundred dollars buying $15 burgers and onion rings from the place next to my hotel, and hand those out?

I wish I could offer what Peter and John did in that moment by the Beautiful Gate. They were able to heal that man, give him back the ability to walk—the thing that kept him in poverty, unable to help himself.

What this experience makes so clear to me is that the problem of homelessness is one of the many that are a systemic problem, and so the solution also must be. That does not excuse me from my responsibility to see and to be made uncomfortable and to help in whatever small way I can. (Trail mix bars from the CVS two blocks down?) But it also reminds me that I have to work for justice in the larger world, because the problem isn’t mine to solve alone—it is OUR problem.

“Another Self”

“Another self.” It’s hard enough to view others this way in family life. Half of Godly parenting–maybe three-quarters of it–is trying to get kids, who are supremely selfish beings, to recognize the other as not only equal to themselves, but “another self.”

But take this beyond the confines of those we already love, and it’s downright superhuman.

-the three people you most dislike in the world, you should view as “another self.”

–the people who are a continual thorn in our sides are “another self.”

–the people living in the woods and holding signs at intersections, whether they’re drug addicts or lazy or criminals or whatever assumptions we might be tempted to make about them, are “another self.”

–the refugee, asylum seeker, and yes, even the genuine “illegal alien” is “another self.”

And as a Christian it is my *job* to enable all these “other selves” to live with dignity. This is a conciliar document saying this, not one priest or one bishop. This is the Church speaking as clearly as the Church can speak.

Now, we can argue about what is the best way to enable human dignity. That’s a totally valid argument.

But those aren’t the discussions we’re having.

Instead, almost all our arguments are focused on whether we *should* help people–whether they *deserve* it and whether “there’s money” to do it. But let’s be honest: in America, there’s plenty of money to do what needs to be done. The argument is between those who think it can’t be done piecemeal, and should therefore be done at the level of society, i.e. through higher taxes and governmental administration, and those who think government is intrinsically evil and taxes are to be avoided at all costs–that charity should be entirely a private matter, even if that means many people will get missed.

This is the fundamental logjam in America today, and the trouble is that people on both sides view their own position on that question as universally-accepted truth–a settled reality. And so instead of figuring out how to strike a balance between personal rights and societal responsibility, we end up bickering about who does and who doesn’t deserve help. We start labeling asylum seekers as criminals, and conservatives as racists, and it all falls to pieces.

Our opponents, too, are “another self.”

The following quote is too long to put in a graphic, but it’s well worth putting at the center of our minds in an election year:

…there must be made available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious.

This social order requires constant improvement. It must be founded on truth, built on justice and animated by love; in freedom it should grow every day toward a more humane balance. An improvement in attitudes and abundant changes in society will have to take place if these objectives are to be gained.

Gaudium et Spes, #26

Book Recommendation: When Helping Hurts

How about a chance of pace for a Monday morning? I have a book recommendation to share:

When Helping Hurts:
How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself

I can’t say enough good things about this book. Written by two Christians (not Catholic) who have been involved for decades in mission work, they share wisdom on how to be helpful, rather than going in with great intentions and making everything worse. In a nutshell, it boils down to this: we can’t come in and be saviors. Our job is to facilitate others helping themselves. There are three types of help: relief, recovery, and development. Most of the time, what’s needed is development, but the vast majority of the time what we offer is relief–because it’s easier. It’s easy to measure, its results make good reports to the investors.

The authors take a “both/and” approach. Many Christians look at the poor and assume they got that way by their own bad choices/sins; therefore their problems are theirs, not ours, to deal with.

Sin is an issue, the authors stress, but so are unjust societal institutions. As an example, they point to civil rights work in the south in the 1960s, and a particular pastor who didn’t speak out on racism.

“Both Reverend Marsh and the civil rights workers were wrong, but in different ways,” the authors wrote. “Reverend Marsh sought the King without the kingdom. The civil rights workers sought the kingdom without the King.”

The authors address overseas missions as well as efforts undertaken within the U.S. When Helping Hurts suggests that successful solutions are not either/or; they have to acknowledge both the effects of personal sin and the effects of institutional oppression, because those two things exert an influence over each other:

“What happens when society crams historically oppressed, uneducated, unemployed, and relatively young human beings into high-rise buildings, takes away their leaders, provides them with inferior education, health care, and employment systems, and then pays them not to work? Is it really that surprising that we see out-of-wedlock pregnancies, broken families, violent crimes, and drug trafficking? Worse yet, we end up with nihilism, because these broken systems do serious damage to people’s worldviews. Worldviews affect the systems, and the systems affect the worldviews.”

(p. 92)

When Helping Hurts offers the concept of “poverty alleviation” as a solution to the complexities of institutional injustice and personal sin. It is a “ministry of reconciliation” in which we use our money in such a way as to empower those in desperate circumstances to begin to help themselves. It acknowledges that they do, in fact, need help from outside, but that as much as possible we should honor the God-given human dignity of the poor by allowing them to be the leaders and the experts in their own lives. That our job is to empower them, not rescue them.

I’ve long believed that in most issues we bicker about, God is in the middle. This book shows us a Godly middle to issues of poverty. Both conservatives and liberals will find things that resonate and things that challenge in this book–which is, to me, the strongest argument that they are on target.

How to Discern?

We all have our preconceived ideas about what elements of modern life run counter to God’s plan. I could list mine, and no doubt some of them would be quite different from yours. Contradictory, even. We’d probably get into an argument about it. Isn’t that what happens every time we talk about guns, immigration, health care, poverty initiatives, race, or climate change? Half of us think the kingdom points in one direction; the other half sees that direction as heresy.

When God works in our lives, we are challenged to grow. Growth requires change, and change is threatening to our equilibrium. So we resist. We come up with a hundred ways to dismiss what we recognize as a threat to our own comfort.

How, then, do we truly discern when God is at work, challenging our preset assumptions, as opposed to when something is truly counter to God’s plan?

I would argue that we have to start by subordinating our preconceived opinions long enough to think around divisive issues and see them from another side. We might not change our minds. In some cases, we shouldn’t. But we’ll recognize the nuance and complexity of the issues, and that would allow us to enter into conversations in a productive, rather than toxic, way. It would go a long way toward bringing us, collectively, out of the place of acrimony and extremism in which we, as a nation, have become imprisoned. And that, in turn, would bring us closer to God’s kingdom.