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.

The more things change…

If you notice the copyright on this, it comes from 1986. In the grand scheme of things, I suppose 35 years is not a huge length of time. Nonetheless, it’s been more than a generation, and we’re still bickering about the same things. That feels a little disheartening to me.

The rest of this quote says, “These wounds will be healed only by greater solidarity with the poor and among the poor themselves.” Solidarity is a scary word. A lot of us live in a pretty significant bubble, which allows us to view the problems of others in an abstract way, rather than as something concrete and heartbreaking and intensely personal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no paragon of virtue in this respect. I’m no better at solidarity than anyone else, despite my best intentions. But it twinges my conscience and forms my approach to the political and social issues that so preoccupy modern discourse.

The Word in the World

This seems like a throwaway, but so much of recent history has revolved around the need for Christians to recognize how our faith interacts with the real world–what does it mean to live Christian faith in a world where misinformation is so rampant? Where social media rules, and encourages us to be our worst selves? What does it mean to live the Gospel when we face problems of lack of respect for human dignity–from abortion through inequality of education and opportunity leading to poverty, homelessness? How does the Gospel call interact with questions of tax code and societal responsibility? With policies around immigration and race?

It’s easy to get complacent about one’s faith if that faith is totally disconnected from the real world–or if one issue overshadows all others. But Romero, in the part that lives in those ellipses, says when the Gospel is taken out of the context of the real world, it ceases to become the word of God at all.

These are the questions I wrestle–knowing always that when I get self-righteous, I’m part of the same problem.

Now and Not Yet

As I continue praying “Advent With Oscar Romero,” I find that so much of what he says resonates. In recent months, I’ve encountered a perspective that baffles me–one that argues we shouldn’t work for justice in the here and now, because the only thing that matters is Heaven. St. Oscar Romero’s words speak to this beautifully. He says, “In preaching the gospel I do not speak about a non-incarnated gospel, but one that is incarnated and that enlightens the realities of our time.”

And then, farther down, he summarizes the “virtues that the Word of God highlights: first, poverty and hunger for God; second, vigilance and faith; third, Christian presence and action in the world.”

What I read in this is a reminder that God came among us in bodily form for a reason–to demonstrate that what happens in the physical world matters to God. (Poverty, racism, injustices of all kinds.) And therefore, it should matter to us, too.

If only…

This entire document is full of parental tough love!

I think we would all agree with the sentiments. The question is how we put them into practice. That’s where division lies. But to me, this document is a reminder that problems that affect us all–at a society level (whether that’s local, national, or global) can’t be left to individuals. We have to act as a society.

Human Dignity Depending On Our Own Convenience. (Ouch.)

The problem with being the center of world culture is that we tend to be really myopic–so focused on ourselves, we tune out the rest of the world. Every time I’m out and about at 2p.m., I butt up against this reality in myself. While I really enjoy listening to NPR news programs, to dig deeper into big questions, it’s excruciating to listen to the BBC News Hour. Unless, of course, they’re talking about the USA.

Three quarters of what is talked about on that program is talking about situations that are so off my radar, I can’t summon any desire to pay attention.

This is what comes to mind while reading today’s section of Fratelli Tutti (#22-28). Pope Francis points out in reality, all human rights are NOT given equal time. Some of us live in opulence and others’ rights are totally discarded. We pay lip service to women having equal dignity to men, but reality paints a different picture. Human trafficking, organ harvesting, etc. further illustrate the divide.

Where he really hits his stride, though, is in #25, where he skewers the habit of defending or dismissing assaults on human dignity, “depending on how convenient it proves.”

This feels very, very familiar. The difference in how we perceive the dignity of the unborn versus that of the refugee fleeing Central America (with or without going through “proper channels”) springs instantly to mind. If it doesn’t cost ME anything, of course I’m going to uphold human dignity. But if it has the potential, however remote, to inconvenience ME, well, then I can find all kinds of reasons why it’s not my problem, it’s theirs.

Next, he points out the tendency to build walls, both figurative and literal, separating humanity into “us” and “them.” It’s so beautiful, it’s nearly poetry. Just go read #27. And he rounds out this section by pointing out that the disenfranchisement caused by these sinful behaviors is precisely what leads to “mafias,” which I would suggest is a blanket term that includes terrorism.

So many Christian teachings have an incredibly practical element. Yes, we should treat each other as “brothers” (in the non-gender-specific meaning of the word) just because that’s God’s will. But the reality is that the failure to follow that teaching has all kinds of real-world ripple effects.

The way those ripple effects bang into each other and intensify is what made me start Intentional Catholic in the first place. Because I think an awful lot of us spend our lives totally unaware of them. That certainly was true of me until the arrival of my daughter set me on a small boat in the middle of all those ripples, and I had no choice but to recognize them because of the bumpiness of the ride.

Until then, I had compartmentalized life, thinking, “Sure, THESE issues are connected to my faith, but all THESE have nothing to do with it.” I was totally wrong. All issues are connected to faith.

The social quality of personal property

I know this is kind of a long quote to process, so let me rephrase it to clarify why it struck me so forcefully. If we forget that our personal property has a “social dimension,” we’ll end up making an idol of it, making it all about ME and what I want. Getting resentful at the suggestion that the “social dimension” exists at all.

And when that happens, it’s easy for people to say, “See? This system of private property is corrupt. It doesn’t serve the common good.”

In other words, if we are too grabby about what’s MINE, it’s going to give people ammunition to suggest that the whole system is flawed.

The writers were undoubtedly thinking of giving ammunition to communism when they wrote this, but given the unpardonable and growing disparity between rich and poor these days–underscored by who gets COVID and who doesn’t; who has to put themselves at risk to go do low-income “essential” labor while the rest of us work safely from home–it seems like a pretty spot-on reminder for our day and age, too.

Right vs. “right”

The past two weeks have been really intense for me as it is crunch time/deadline days for preparing presentations for the NPM (National Association of Pastoral Musicians) convention, which went online this year because of COVID-19. At the same time, where I live we are opening up. From this point forward, the discernments get harder. Now we have to weigh our responsibility to uphold the life and dignity of our fellow human beings against the danger of being so overprotective of physical health that we cause lasting damage to the emotional and mental health of ourselves and those we love. To say nothing of causing unnecessary suffering from deepening poverty, as more economic damage happens.

For weeks before opening, we’d had virtually no new cases where I live, so the calculation looks quite different here than it does in many other places. In some ways, it makes it more difficult. How long can we remain isolated from those we love? Yet if we loosen up in some areas and loved ones loosen in others, then we’ve both just multiplied our exposures. My state has been open 2 1/2 weeks now, and naturally we are seeing cases again. Not a lot, but to see regular cases after weeks of almost none makes it clear that we can’t be cavalier.

Which brings us, among other things, to the “do we mask?” question that has become yet another a lightning rod, another opportunity for political division in our country. The reaction of certain quarters of our population (“I’m not wearing a mask! When I woke up this morning I was in a free country!”) is what, specifically, made this Chesterton quote jump out at me this morning. This is one of those moments in which we are challenged to recognize where a worldly value has come to be more important than Godly ones. Has become an idol.

I don’t wear a mask at all times, and in masking, in opening up, every moment requires a discernment for me to make sure I’m practicing what I preach. Or at least, to try. I don’t like it, but it is the spiritual exercise of life right now–for all of us.

“New humanism”

This seems like such a simple quote. I was going to let it stand without commentary, but I realized that this is really the essence of the convictions of all Christians who are passionate about social justice. To be a Christian is to care, in a self-emptying, physical, sacrificial way, for others. And to recognize that the things we do now have ripples down through history, on generations not yet born.

This quote expresses why we have a responsibility to act on environmental issues, on racial issues, on issues of poverty and inequality–the whole range of questions that are the most uncomfortable to address, because they challenge cherished ideals of self-reliance and rugged individualism.