New Orleans Living and working in urban areas around the world, whether we admit it or not, we all adopt highly individualized personal policies about how to deal with personal interactions with panhandlers and the homeless, whether we admit it or not.
Pope Francis speaking to a homeless zine in Italy sort of shamed almost all those urban survival strategies with some very simple statements that serve as a reminder that a basic moral code and compass still deserves a central place in modern life. The Pope stated plainly that it was always the right thing to do to give to the homeless. Period. When asked if that was true even if you thought it was just going for the next bottle of wine, he replied that if that was the only joy being felt in their lives, then, essentially, who are we to begrudge or judge. And, that’s not all, he argued when you loosen the grip on those small pieces of change or that crumpled loose dollar, don’t just toss it over. He counsels that we at least look the person in the eyes or, if close enough, touch their arm or hands, so that we provide some basic dignity to the exchange.
I can guarantee you that none of that has been my policy. Around the world, where poverty is epidemic, I have specialized in avoided eyes, straight back, and unbroken stride in Latin America, India, and Africa. I’ve never wanted to be stereotyped as a rich America, rather than an organizer. I’ve rationalized that I’ve given my life at the office and in the streets, so to speak, so I’ve essentially punched my own ticket for a free pass. Even at home in the US, I’ve simply nodded or dismissed direct requests with a sorry and a quick slip. On drive-by requests at stoplights, I’ve just averted my eyes and kept driving. My general policy has been never to really start, because where will it stop.
Contrary to what believers might still hold, the Pope is not perfect and neither is the Church, but that doesn’t assuage my feeling that my position has to change. Next to the Pope’s advice it seems small, cold, and, worse, inhumane. His position confronts my own view of myself. I love people and am dedicated to my work with and for them and their inalienable rights to dignity and respect, yet the Pope has called to question my position as a casual callousness that denies not only dignity and respect, but basic humanity, which would seem the least we have to offer our fellow travelers in this world.
So what’s to be done? I’m not suddenly, Mr. Moneybags or Daddy Warbucks, and I still want to believe my life’s work is still my real contribution, but my rationality for not engaging and doing my small part has been punctured. We have an often neglected family plan we picked up from a friend of saving every five dollar bill for whatever. Looks like I’ll me putting all my change into a special Pope Francis pile for the homeless and panhandlers trying to make it the best way they can, just as the rest of us are doing.
And, rather than a handout, which I hate, I can certainly give a handshake, which speaks more loudly than my little money to our universal condition, sharing not just the street but as fellow members of the teeming humanity of the world. It seems the least any of us can do.