Fast, Pray, Give: Day 3

There’s a difference between being hungry and being homeless. Whenever I do some kind of community service I find I’m more drawn to working with the hungry, but not so much with the homeless. Hungry people get their needs met by getting a meal, a temporary relief from the pangs of hunger. Even students who get a free meal from campus ministry are easily satisfied with a free meal from someone.

But it’s a lot harder to satisfy someone without a home.

What’s worse is that a good deal of the time the homeless can be nasty to us when we try to serve them. Dorothy Day even told Catholic Worker volunteers once that they should prepare themselves for that. “If you’re going to work with the poor, be prepared to work with ungrateful and hard-headed people.”

But aren’t we also a bit like that? I know this week I’m looking at a home I own in Queens that I’m having a hard time selling and I’m cursing my home. I have a leaky faucet in my house in the Buffalo suburbs and sometimes when there’s drama at home, I’d rather be somewhere else.

Home is not always where the heart is.

Perhaps therein lies the problem. We are not always satisfied with what we have, but rather are consistently and constantly searching for more.

And there are many who don’t even have the minimum, and we believe they should be happy with just getting that, when we’re not even settled when we have close to the maximum.

At Christmas one year I was on a subway with my then, roommate. We met a homeless man on the D train in the Bronx in New York City much too late at night. He smelled, he was a bit drunk, smoking a cigarette and the conductor could do nothing with him,

“Put that cigarette out!”

“Sorry, can’t hear ya,”

And it’s not like too many cops are around at three in the morning.

Eventually the conductor gave up his argument. And moved down the cars. It was then that the homeless man looked at us and said:

“Guys, I’m tired. I’ve lost everything and they’re trying to take more away from me. They took my house, they took my kids, they will probably even take away this old bottle soon enough. But they can’t take away what’s in my heart…they can’t take away my talent.”

Then he told us that he liked us and that he wanted to sing us a “tired song.”

And in that Christmas Season “Chestnuts roasting on an Open Fire” had never sounded better than when that man sung it for his heart. We laughed when he said “from kids from one to ninety-NINE” (the correct words are 92, to rhyme with the final words Merry Christmas to you”) but it was no matter. We were satisfied with that and so was he. He never asked for money, or even a bit of food. What he sought most of all that night was dignity.

And perhaps, just by listening to his song, we restored a bit of that to him that night. A tip of his cap as we left gave us a warm good-bye as if we were leaving an old friend of the family, and perhaps we were as 24 years later I still remember him.

We often hunger for more than food and the homeless often seek more than four walls. We get misguided in not being satisfied with what we have when others are deprived of the basics. In restoring dignity to all, we give other people an opportunity to be renewed, to see themselves as God does.

And it is more than enough.

Her Homeless Brother

Ashley Womble is writing a memoir on Salon and this piece about her homeless brother will resonate with anyone who has experience working with homeless people with mental illness.

“Do you consider yourself homeless?” I asked.

“Oh, yes!” he answered proudly. I wondered if the constant motion of wandering from town to town, never knowing where he would sleep or eat next, helped quiet the voices he heard. If it was his own kind of medication, and if so, could I really tell him that was the wrong way to live?

When the food arrived, Jay dug into the chips with his grubby hands. As he lectured me about the New World Order, I thought about little specks of dirt flying off of his fingers and onto the salted chips. “You can have some of this,” he motioned to the chile con queso. I had a choice at that moment: I could ignore the gross factor and eat with my brother — insanity, filth and all— or I could keep my hands clean and preserve the distance that had grown between us. I went for the chips.

We’re taught as Catholics to go beyond all those usual boundaries to care for the poor and homeless. However, sometimes people just don’t can’t receive the help that they need because they refuse the medication that will remove their psychosis. It’s a tough thing to let go. But there aren’t many other choices. It’s a waiting game, waiting for the day that they sink into a depression so low that they would rather reach out than be in that painful state. Coming down from mania takes a long time when one goes unmedicated and it’s tough to sit and do nothing.

A homeless man who I’ll call “Tom” that I met doing work at a shelter in New York spoke of a brother. I looked at him strangely and said, “Um, hold on, you have a FAMILY? Why don’t you just go live with them?”

He replied tersely, “Well, I tried. But I can’t deal with being indoors anymore. I’d rather be on the streets.” Another would refuse meds staying in a jumble of confused thoughts and paranoia.

I was no help to either.

I pray for these all the time and hope that they find safe shelter, food and can one day “deal with” simply being indoors.

Dorothy Day once said “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”

Each one of us, whether homeless, or those who wish to serve them, need that inner revolution–a heart that is committed to change and often one might be able to cause a revolution in another by helping them see that their choices are not healthy–but when it comes to mental illness, one committed to helping another may need to wait for a different kind of conversion, indeed, a conversion that may never come. This conversion deals with unbalanced chemicals in the brain the we cannot make aright by the sheer force of the will.

So today, lads, let us pray for all those who are homeless not by choice, but by the inability to control their own brain chemistry. We pray for those whose mental instabilities cause them to choose homelessness and distorted thoughts. Let us pray for our own helplessness and for our own stresses when we are not received as helpers. We pray that someone, somewhere may help them and that their help may be accepted when ours is not. We pray that evil does not take advantage of their vulnerability and that justice can be done when it is called for.

And most of all, let us pray that all may be united with those who are alienated from their friends, families and all those who love them.

Prayer Intention for Thursday’s Alternative Spring Break

Lord, our week is nearing completion. We need to leave the poor and head home. How will we be changed when we get home? How has this experience changed me? What did I think before I came and what do I think now?

Who has changed me? Was it a child of the Bronx? The homeless in the bus station? A teen who ran away from home? What drives such desperation? How am I called to respond?

It is sometimes easy to ignore the homeless in our own part of the world. When we immerse ourselves in another culture, we find it hard to ignore those in trouble. And we know that over two-thirds of the world live on less than $7/day. So these that we have served are hardly the most in need world-wide.

Where are you calling me, Lord? Where are you calling these young men and women?

We wait and listen for you to come again…and tell us more.

Prayer Intention for Wednesday’s Alternative Spring Break

Lord, I cannot imagine what it is like to have no home. But for so many of your children, that is their reality. Tonight may we be able to reach out a helping hand to those who are often looked upon as downtrodden and weak. Many of the residents of the streets are overlooked as so many pass them by in the midst of their daily occupations. May we see them as you do, Lord. They are precious in your sight.

Who is hard for us to love? Are these men and women too much for us? Can their situation make us ignore their needs? Are they too hard for us to stretch beyond the limits of where we usually stay? Are they so far outside of “polite society” that we cannot see them as “one of us?”

The fact remains that you, Lord, were able to see beyond our weaknesses, our sins, to reach down to us and embrace our humanity and our death. In dying for us, in accepting our humanity, you gifted us with life everlasting. May we see you rising again in the work that we do today. May we see you rise in each person who gets a meal or a pair of undergarments or warm socks.

In gratitude for all your gifts in bringing us to you, Lord. We say and know that your love and your grace are more than enough for us. May that love flow through us and grace these people today so that they may be filled with that same “more than enough” in their destitution.

Let us also pray for our friends who join us from Long Island University and Fr. Ted Brown their campus minister who regularly serve the needs of the poor in the great city of New York.

Would You Care for Someone Passed Out on the Sidewalk?

As I walked my dog last night I happened to pass my local parish in Woodside only to find a young man passed out cold on the sidewalk. My dog, Haze started to bark wildly as if he sensed something was wrong. I too, had a strange feeling about this. The man didn’t appear to bre breathing by my observation. The guy didn’t flinch when Haze barked pretty close to him and he didn’t respond to me yelling “Dude, are you OK?” So I called 911.

After a brief wait of about 15 minutes, the cops, fire department and paramedics arrived. They awakened the inebriated man and put him into their truck. A beer can casually rolled into the gutter after he stood up. Somewhat relieved, I began to walk home with Haze.

I wondered if anyone else bothered to consider what had happened to this man. The 911 operator asked if it looked like he had been assaulted. I replied no but that he wasn’t responding to any of my verbal cues and wasn’t moving.

The young man looked hispanic or perhaps Native American, I wondered if he was just drunk if I would be getting someone who may possibly be undocumented in trouble. On the other hand, if he were hurt or dead, he’d want someone to call the cops.

I was amazed at how many people never gave him a second look. It reminded me of the ABC show “What would you do?” And this clip in particular.

I say all this not to toot my own horn but rather because I find it hard to believe that I’m the only one who called 911. What if it were me and I just passed out on the sidewalk suddenly. Would anyone care?

I’m always amazed not at the fact that people pass by other people on the street but that they even have to think about what they should do here. In my case this evening I waited for the 911 cops to arrive and they didn’t seem to want to involve me nor know that I had tried to wake him up–they just walked past me and said “Thanks”.

While this seemed to be a case of someone just being young, drunk and stupid. What if it wasn’t? It seems to me that the story of the Good Samaritan is alive and well.

And perhaps that is Jesus’ point. We forget about people and relegate them to our own compartmentalized notions of who we think they are. He’s a drunk. He’s no good. He’s homeless, etc.

It shouldn’t be lost on anybody that I wasn’t willing to touch this man. I called 911 but I didn’t shake him or try to wake him with a nudge. My own concern needs to go deeper than that. And perhaps it is there that our fear restricts us from caring for people as well as we should.

Tonight let us pray for the ignored on the city streets and for the people who will die there tonight.