Sunday, April 10, 2005

What is my responsibility?

Today, as I walked out of the church parking lot on my way to catch the train home, I noticed a kind of scruffy looking guy coming towards me, pushing a bike. He didn't ask me for anything as I passed him, so I didn't stop. I've offered help to people in the past, only to discover that they weren't really homeless or in need at all, just scruffy looking; that can be kind of embarrasing for everybody involved. I looked back as I reached the corner and waited for the light to change; he had stopped next to a trash can on the street and started poking around in it, like he was looking for recycling. As I crossed the street, I was thinking to myself, "What is my responsibility? He didn't ask for help. Should I go back and offer?"

When I looked back at him from across the street, he was still fishing in the trash, but now he was chewing on something.

Now, fishing for recycling in the trash is one thing; fishing for food is something else. So I went back and asked him if he was OK, if he needed something to eat. He told me he hadn't eaten in a day or so. I looked around on the street, but there was just a liquor store on the corner, nowhere nearby to buy him any decent food. So I told him to wait a minute and walked back to the church.

When I walk onto the grounds of the church, the thought that always comes to mind is "welcome to the Green Zone." My church is in a low-income, inner city environment. It has nice grounds and a pretty little courtyard with a a fountain, facilities that stand in sharp contrast to the rest of the neighborhood. It is surrounded by a a high, wought iron fence that bends out at the top, with sharp iron points. Everything about it says "keep out--you don't belong here."

In the kitchen, they were getting ready for a luncheon after a 1 PM baptism, a real high-end affair, it looked like. So I asked Jack, the caterer, if the food was ready yet.

"No," he said. He was a little bit harried, rushing around to pull stuff together for the luncheon.

So I told him there a guy outside who hadn't eaten in a awhile.

He paused a second. "I meant yeah," he said, "just gimme two minutes."

In two minutes, I had a paper plate with crab cakes, a spinach and arugula salad with marinated pears, and a big dinner roll. Quite the haul. I took it out to the guy, who started eating as soon as I handed it to him. "Sorry to be rude," he said around a mouthful. He told me his name was Kevin. He talked with some kind of Irish or Welsh accent, although he told me he was from Maryland.

I don't know what Kevin's story is. He was hungrier than many people I meet on the street. People who panhandle often get a fair amount of food, although most of it is fast food with lots of fat and salt and little nutritive value. Others are getting their caloric intake from alcohol, or are strung out and aren't really all that interested in eating. Maybe he's new to the street. Maybe he's still embarassed about his situation. Maybe he's trying to cling to some shred of dignity.

I told Kevin we'd be having lunch at the church for a community outreach project on Saturday; maybe he could join us for lunch. He said he would.

I hope he does.


Elizabeth said...

May God protect and bless Kevin, and may he continue to meet with kindness from folk such as yourself !

Johanna said...

Happy that you're back in the blogosphere, Sampson. And being hospitable, as usual.

I'm interested in the fence with the points on the top...

Sampson said...

So I guess I'm still trying to figure out what I had in mind with that post. I've been wanting to talk about the "Green Zone" for awhile; a lot of inner city parishes have this feel, unfortunately. But I think I was aiming more at this whole question of responsibility, where it begins and ends. What is our responsibility to people who, for whatever reason, don't ask for help? If we see a scruffy-looking person on the street, and we pass by without getting solicited, do we breathe a sigh of relief? What is that about? When is it time for us to take some initiative?


Sampson said...

Glad to be back, BTW, Johanna. I was in NY, and got a chance to see the gateways in Central Park before they took them down. I have a message for you from Mark that I will type up sometime soon.