Refugee

“Oh look, they’re selling Girl Scout cookies. Turn around up here.”

En route to home after a full day of running errands, my wife had spotted an awning on the street corner to our left, surrounded by several girls in uniform and a woman seated at a table in the middle. I immediately turned around to enter the parking lot adjacent to their location. As we entered the lot we noticed a man on the side of the street with a sign, “Homeless. Any help appreciated.” His appearance–ragged clothes that looked lived-in for weeks, long scraggly beard–was typical of the many homeless we often see in Provo/Orem, usually on busy street corners or near bustling commercial centers. We pulled past him into an empty parking space and my wife exited the van to purchase some boxes of cookies. I couldn’t help, of course, gazing over at the man with the sign. We all do that, I think, when confronted with members of our societies that seem out of place, homeless and otherwise. They seem to exist, to echo Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, somewhere within the bare existence of refugees and the utterly Stateless. They seem out of place in our presence, ghosts that fade in and out of existence, rootless, without any real identity that ties them, even loosely, to the rest of the citizenry. And we can’t look away, either out of compassion, or sadness, or fear, or disgust, or anger, or unease.

After my wife had returned to the van I told her that I felt we should give him something. We see people like him all the time and never stop to give anything, I thought. She was a little uneasy at first but agreed. I pulled around to the exit of the parking lot and my wife rolled down her window. Regrettably, we only had a few dollars in cash and these she handed to him through the window. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said, accepting the small offering. Unexpectedly, his eyes welled up with tears. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered. He immediately turned back around in the other direction.

His words stunned us into silence as we drove away. He was sorry? For what, exactly? His slovenly appearance? Putting all of us in a potentially awkward position by asking us (and others) to stop and help? For not being what was “expected” of a human being born in America? For not being able to get a job? For being a failure? Maybe he was conning us and his conscience was starting to crack?

Of course we couldn’t know. But we said little on the way home. A melancholic stillness had settled within us. Words were both unnecessary and insufficient.

I was left, though, with the nagging feeling that we hadn’t given him what little we had on us at the time in an act of pure benevolence. I needed to do it for me as well, to respond to my own fears that I am at my core self-absorbed, overly confident in my worldview, absolutely morally certain. I needed my children to see me respond in some way, however inadequately, to the plight of another. I feared they didn’t witness that often enough from me. This self-loathing was increased by the thought that only someone with a certain amount of privilege (and the tendency to over-think everything) would be philosophically or spiritually concerned that an intended gift actually be a pure, authentic gift. Nevertheless, these thoughts didn’t arise until after the fact, when I had a chance to calculate and reckon the “cost.”

I’m not sure what could serve as an adequate moral to this story and I’m not interested in preaching or advocating for anything, especially after the ironic and anti-climactic epilogue. I saw another man begging on a street corner a few hours later, this time when I was alone, returning from another errand. I didn’t stop this time. I didn’t have anything to give him, but I knew I probably would not have stopped even if I did. The usual justifications arose in my mind: I pay fast offerings, I serve people in my ward and neighborhood (though also really inadequately), I can’t be expected to try to do something for everyone I see in need, and besides, I gave to another homeless man earlier in the day….justifications that for some reason had not appeared in the earlier experience. Here, the calculating and computing happened immediately.

In the end, we are constantly called to by others, are we not? Rarely do the calls come as explicitly as someone with a sign, asking for help. More often the call originates in the gaze of another, in clouded eyes of pain, or in body language that tells us to stay away, I’m hurt and bleeding. I think we even notice this often, but our hearts usually remain resistant. The sheer amount of need (including our own) with which we are faced when we go out into the world is staggering. Sometimes, though, inexplicably, our hearts break, even if just a little, and no justifications rise up to seal off the cracks and fissures. In those moments responding, giving, reaching out are as natural as breathing. No calculations or reckoning of justice, and later the heart would seal up again, as impenetrable as before. But now–just the simple, bare relating of souls who relate to one another precisely because they share together a familiar brokenness and alienation. One of them, however, had to shed his outer trappings of protective layers, guarding him from a searing vulnerability that makes him uneasy and off balance, the bare existence of a fellow refugee. Underneath, we were both the same, and that fact would remain long after I again took up my protective layers and hardened my heart to the world again.

Comments

  1. The Divine in me recognizes and honors, the Divine in you. It’s a beautiful uniting common denominator. Isn’t this where the gospel points us? Why is it so hard for us to see? Why is it so hard to give so that others won’t die in misery?

  2. Chances are he said sorry for the potential tears, even the meek know it is not manly to cry. Though honestly, he has every right to. Rarely is a person in such a state due to their own causation.

    And well, lets be honest. If you gave a dollar to every homeless person in Provo/Orem, you might as well pay for the tuition of half the student body of BYU (ok, maybe not that much but lets be honest, there’s too many for one individual to help them all).

  3. Kristine says:

    The Lantern Out of Doors–Gerard Manley Hopkins

    Sometimes a lantern moves along the night,
    That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
    I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
    With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?

    Men go by me whom either beauty bright
    In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
    They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
    Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

    Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
    What most I may eye after, be in at the end
    I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.

    Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
    There, éyes them, heart wánts, care haúnts, foot fóllows kínd,
    Their ránsom, théir rescue, ánd first, fást, last friénd.

  4. Thank you, Jacob.

    This post moved me to tears, as well – and I appreciate the reminder you gave me that he gave you. God bless that man, and God bless us to bless others like him.

  5. Jacob, I needed this. Thanks.

  6. The sheer amount of need (including our own) with which we are faced when we go out into the world is staggering. Sometimes, though, inexplicably, our hearts break, even if just a little, and no justifications rise up to seal off the cracks and fissures. In those moments responding, giving, reaching out are as natural as breathing. No calculations or reckoning of justice, and later the heart would seal up again, as impenetrable as before.

    Beautifully stated, Jacob, though I confess I wonder if such charitable responses are ever, can ever be, truly “natural.” The natural man is an enemy to God, after all. To respond to the poor is, at least so long as we are fallen mortals, perhaps always going to be a struggle, a matter of discipline and will, a response to an active call, not something that flows freely from within, as much as I’d like to think otherwise. (Some old thoughts of mine on the topic here: http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2004/01/the-poor-oppress-me/.)

  7. For years i ignored beggers because I didn’t want to encourage that kind of behavior. But, who am I to judge their circumstances? It’s very unlikely any of the people I see on the streets asking for money have had any of the advantages I’ve had.

    Thank you for your thoughtful post.

  8. Walking around Seattle in the evening, as I do a couple times a week, gives me many many opportunities to help people who are begging. (I love the word in Spanish: pordioseros: kind of breaks down to ‘the people who say ‘for God’s sake.’) I always wind up giving my change and sometimes more to someone. I try to be sensitive and do it as well as I can. The reason I give is because I am that man or woman. Remove the hairspray sheen that my money allows me and I am him. We are not so nifty, we are dust. All other conclusions are a product of money sheltered ignorance. We may think we have worked so hard to come to some place of safety, but there is no safety. Ultimately, we all come to the same place, and find that we are in very fact that filthy beggar our self. This is the meaning and usefulness of apocalypse.

  9. What Thomas said. And thank you Jacob.

  10. Jacob, your wisdom and insight continue to shake me out of my complacency. We are those people. Truly my place in life is but contingent feature of my luck, which imposes certain responsibilities. I am overwhelmed by them, but pieces like this drive home the point that I cannot ignore them.

  11. Beautiful, Jacob. Thank you.

  12. Liz Johnson says:

    This really is a lovely post and lovely comments. Thanks for the uplift and the call to do more.

  13. Thanks, all.

  14. Sharee Hughes says:

    It is nice to be generous to those who have less than we do. The problem is, many of these people are scam artists and make more in a day than many of us who give to them. They aren’t homeless, they just pretend to be, and begging is their job. I gave a dollar to an old woman who was bgging on South Temple in Salt Lake City. It was all the cash I had. A young “punk” begging nearby was upset that I didn’t give anything to him. He had his hair in a Mohawk, wore multiple earrings, had tattoos and wa unkempt. He told me the old woman was a drug addict and would just use the money for drugs. He, on the other hand, did not do drugs and just needed food. At least that was what he said. I was hit up for change so he “could take TRAX” several nights in a row at a downtown Salt Lake TRAX station–by the same person. You will always find beggars at 21st Souh and 300 West in Salt Lake. There are several signs stashed there and people just come along an pick up one of the signs to beg. Once a young man stood there with a sign that said he was “pregnant and homeless.” Illiterate too, I guess. Who knows what to believe? Do we give, anyway, just in case there is real need? Or do we just pay our fast offerings and do serviceprojects wheeve possible? It is difficult to know and we just need to be guided by our hearts, I guess.

  15. I spent 9 months studing the homeless by living like them sometimes living on the street myself. Some of it was in the Salt Lake area. When they look sleepy, dirty and/or lame chances are they need your help because it’s been awhile since they have enjoyed shelter.

  16. There is no scriptural justification for ignoring the poor and needy. There are lots of available justifications, but none of them are scriptural. Not giving money to particular individuals is one thing; not trying to do what we can for the poor and needy is quite another thing entirely.

    Sadly, I think most people don’t know, really, all that they can do for the poor and needy – because we’ve never stretched ourselves to the limit of our ability to help. Think about that the next time you stop at a fast food joint – or the next time you buy that extra necktie – or the next time you are contemplating having a yard sale rather than donating your excess to others who need it but can’t pay for it – even if you’re charging only a few dollars for each item.

    I’m as guilty of this as some, but, at the very least, I’ve tried hard over the years to donate rather than sell things if I don’t need the money badly.

  17. I wonder if the man’s sorriness had to do with feeling like he forced you to have pity, whether or not he really did. Like when Zarathustra came across the ugliest man:

    Zarathustra…when he opened his eyes, he saw something sitting by the wayside shaped like a man, and hardly like a man, something nondescript. And all at once there came over Zarathustra a great shame, because he had gazed on such a thing. Blushing up to the very roots of his white hair, he turned aside his glance, and raised his foot that he might leave this ill-starred place….Pity overcame him; and he sank down all at once…. But immediately he got up again from the ground, and his countenance became stern.

    And the man says:

    Stay, sit down! Do not however look at me! Honour thus—mine ugliness! … But that thou passedst me by in silence, that thou blushedst—I saw it well: thereby did I know thee as Zarathustra. Every one else would have thrown to me his alms, his pity, in look and speech. But for that—I am not beggar enough: that didst thou divine. For that I am too rich, rich in what is great, frightful, ugliest, most unutterable! Thy shame, O Zarathustra, honoured me! With difficulty did I get out of the crowd of the pitiful,—that I might find the only one who at present teacheth that ‘pity is obtrusive’—thyself, O Zarathustra! —Whether it be the pity of a God, or whether it be human pity, it is offensive to modesty. And unwillingness to help may be nobler than the virtue that rusheth to do so. That however—namely, pity—is called virtue itself at present by all petty people:—they have no reverence for great misfortune, great ugliness, great failure.

    How does one give and love without feeling sorry for in a way that degrades the others’ humanity? How does one beg without feeling so degraded?

  18. Russell Arben Fox said above: “Beautifully stated, Jacob, though I confess I wonder if such charitable responses are ever, can ever be, truly “natural.” The natural man is an enemy to God, after all. To respond to the poor is, at least so long as we are fallen mortals, perhaps always going to be a struggle, a matter of discipline and will, a response to an active call, not something that flows freely from within, as much as I’d like to think otherwise. ”

    The natural man is the carnal part of us; yes, the body is weak, but the spirit is willing. We can remember and believe in the goodness and potential our Heavenly Father built into our spirits when we were “born” the first time. We know from the scriptures these are the last days, and we know we are all here now because we were the more “noble” spirits.

    I believe that helping, giving, serving, ARE the “natural” things for us to do, but sometimes we are so beguiled or misled by the rebellious one that we forget who we really are, and who all the others are too…

  19. We had an interesting FHE four or five years ago in my singles’ ward, presented by the LDS employee (I believe he was a Seventy), who had been assigned as the Church liaison on the project to get Salt Lake’s chronically homeless population into permanent housing. The project has been very successful so far. He came to educate us about poverty, particularly the social aspects of poverty.–the entirely different ways of relating to people that you develop when you’re poor. He had grown up in a poorer area on the west side of the Salt Lake valley–not hungry-poor, but familiar with the culture of poverty, so he knew what he was talking about, and it was really eye-opening. He also addressed the perennial issue of downtown panhandlers. He said that at least in Salt Lake, few of those who begged were homeless. For the most part they *were* all poor, but lied about being homeless–most of them took the bus into town from their homes and even had set up a schedule to determine who begged where and when, chasing off any truly desperate person who might try to butt in and disrupt their cash flow. He encouraged us to focus on giving to the institutions in town that helped anyone who came to them–not because we’re not blessed for giving even to a scam artist, but because the money we give to that deceptive person could be used to bless the truly needy. Also, on a practical level, as was noted in the OP, we tend to feel justified not giving now if we’ve recently given elsewhere–so if we’re giving our alms in public to ease our conscience and the person to whom we’ve given is not who he/she seems to be, we have unintentionally robbed the very poor by throwing away the letter we get from UNICEF or the homeless shelter a few days later. He noted, however, that there were definitely exceptions–truly destitute people begging on the streets whose stories were real–and so he tried very hard to listen to the Spirit, and when he felt the Spirit when someone asked him for money, he gave generously–tried to singlehandedly solve their immediate problem if he could–not just give a few dollars to ease his conscience and hope that they got enough from others to make up the difference. And when he knew a person was a scam artist or if he didn’t feel the Spirit telling him the person was truly in need, he walked right on by without feeling guilty.

    Now I just need to hear the Spirit better. And try to stop being the sort of giver described by a homeless character in the movie The Fisher King: one of those who pays so that she doesn’t feel obligated to really look. That’s where I fail most spectacularly: stuffing money into the hole in the fence so I don’t have to really consider the hurt on the other side. Someone at church asked me the other day if I wanted to join her in a project mentoring older kids who were aging out of foster care, and I said (honestly, but with shame) that I’d rather not: “I give money so I don’t have to give hugs.” I have a loooong way to go.

  20. I wonder if such charitable responses are ever, can ever be, truly “natural.”. This is an interesting question. It is natural for some people and others seem to learn it through maturation and enlightenment. I don’t think we can become Christlike through just obediance and ordinances.

  21. The question of the natural man is a good one. RAF, #6, I don’t see that it has to be (or in fact is) either/or. I think because of our fallenness and natural propensity to be selfish we must struggle to give and that giving does, in fact, often occur because people discipline themselves to heed the call more consistently and authentically, as you suggest. However, sometimes I think that we act in such a way that is motivated by pure grace, and thus the act itself is gracious in some way. I think that’s essentially what happened in this experience. I saw and I acted, without justification or struggle. Later, as I wrote, I impugned the purity of my motives and weighed factors that seemed to make my act less than gracious in my own calculating eyes. But none of these thoughts were with me in the moment. This is also why I can’t take credit for acting in this way (inspired by grace, if executed imperfectly, but without reasons and internal pep talks) and why it was a genuine failure later when I didn’t act, because my justifications and excuses were with me, allowing me to convince myself that I should concede the struggle in that case. But in the first instance, there was no struggle, no overcoming of the natural. Instead, the natural was transformed, through grace, and I acted essentially, I believe, in love, a love that was transmuted from Christ to myself, a pure gift from God.

  22. Thanks for this. It describes much of what I feel in similar instances. I loved the “Sometimes, though, inexplicably, our hearts break”

  23. Beautiful, Jacob. The call to our humanity, to our responsibility. We have to train ourselves to ignore it, I think. And what a sad training that would be. As we worship, pleading with God for our own needs (“Guide us O Thou Great Jehovah; God Be With You; More Holiness Give Me”), we articulate our own “Any Help Appreciated.”

  24. Once, as I was entering a grocery store, there was a particularly unkempt young man outside begging because he was hungry. As most have said (and to my shame), I usually pass by with a sheepish “sorry”. There was something about this particular young man though that brought to mind a mental image of my own nephew. I stopped and explained to him that I had no cash on me (which was true), but that I would buy him something to eat if he just told me what he would like. He modestly asked for a sandwich, some chips and something to drink. I only had a few items to purchase so I was outside again within just a few minutes, but the young man was nowhere to be found. Incredibly, my first reaction was one of anger “Why did you ask me for something to eat if you weren’t even going to stick around to eat it?” Almost instantly a small voice came to me “Why are you angry? Your offer of help was genuinely offered and gratefully received. And it’s like you are even out the money you spent. Here is your own lunch for tomorrow.” As I ate that sandwich the next day, I had a lot more to chew on than a mere sandwich…

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