Happy new year, Reader! I hope your holidays were life-giving (and if they weren’t, that your post-holidays have brought some life back to you). Also, happy Epiphany; may we all find in this season whatever it is that that elusive star is hovering over for us.
I drove to visit friends and family on Christmas. I usually drive on Christmas Day, reserving Christmas Eve for participating in the services at my home church before striking out to do the rounds of people on the holiday proper. So I was driving, an audiobook in my CD player and the gifts (poorly) wrapped for my family knocking about on the passenger seat beside me. I was nearing the end of the several-hour trip, anxious to get out of the car and eat something, to stretch and zone out for a while. I came down the off-ramp of the interstate and there at the intersection was a woman holding a cardboard sign reading, “Please help.”
Here in the Land of Pilgrims there are a couple of folks who stake out the off-ramps as places to stand with their signs proclaiming homelessness, “God bless.” I see them in the summer, standing in the sun like chipped statues of perseverance and despair. But this past Christmas was outrageously warm for the season, warm enough that there on Christmas Day itself was this woman in a scarf and coat with her sign.
I confess, Reader, that my first reaction was anger, not at her being there but at her sign—“Please help.” Help how? Help what? If you’re going to ask me to help you, you should at least give me the courtesy of outlining what you need. I find that I usually react with this wave of impatience at the Twitter-esque signs of the forsaken, their limited characters never telling me anything about what help looks like. Do you want money? A coat? A roof for the night? Prayer? What do I have that you want? What do I have that you need?
My second reaction was one of chagrin; I was driving in my own car to a house filled with food and people and heat and presents for me, even as I had a chair full of presents for others and my own backpack full of clothes and books for the visit in the backseat. I hated that I had enough and this woman did not, and I hated it even more because it wasn’t transferable. My clothes have been themselves gifts and hand-me-downs; the gifts for my family were mostly handmade because I’m terrible at buying gifts and I’m also not overwhelmingly wealthy myself. I hated that I was—and am now, in retelling this—justifying my having as a shield against my assumption that she was lacking.
Because it was an assumption; again, I had no idea what help she needed. I did not know, will never know what drove her to stand at this intersection with her cardboard sign on a warm Christmas Day. I never know what to do about this, Reader, about these living signposts of the forgotten in our culture. They are most often (at least here, at the edges of the city rather than downtown) at these crossroads, these places where I am on my way to something and couldn’t stop even if I had the nerve to do so, where my fellow impatient travelers are coming down the interstate behind me with their own homes to get to and their own places to be. There is no time to stop and ask what help looks like, what is actually needed; there is no space to ask what these people’s names are and whether I truly have something they could use.
It makes me think of an episode of NCIS, a procedural drama I’ve watched since it first aired when I was in high school. Abby Sciuto, the resident forensic scientist with a flair for Goth attire and an innocent heart of gold, reveals that she regularly visits with and helps out the homeless who camp out under an overpass in Washington, D.C. The rest of her team applaud her reaching out and show that they do not engage this part of town, that they don’t even see it. I am very much like them…and I wish I knew how to be like her.
Christianity makes this even more difficult, I think, because this Jesus dude was aware of His own intersection signposts. He went to the poor, to the forgotten, to the broken and He asked their names, healed their wounds, ate at their houses. He challenged those of us who follow after Him to do the same, and that’s hard because we are also told that the poor will always be with us and it is quite true that usually I have somewhere else to be. I cannot stop and create a relationship with every woman holding a sign, every man standing next to a tattered old backpack. There are other relationships that are equally as important that need attention and love and help.
But doing nothing feels so wrong. And just giving money feels so wrong. I’m not overly fond of simply giving things to people without spending some time with them, of handing them something and walking away, content in my own generosity. But how to balance these, Reader? How to be help without being patronizing, without draining myself and my other commitments?
How do I serve the poor without having to justify the life that I live that they do not?
I realize this is a bit much to be starting 2016 with, Reader, but I have the feeling it’s going to be that kind of year. I got a phone call earlier this week telling me I’ve been accepted to seminary and that is huge and frightening and amazing and humbling and real. So I’m going to be asking myself to see the hard questions, if not answer them. If you have any answers, Reader, I would love to hear.