Not a day goes by when I don't see an image bearer of God begging on the New York streets. Some of the street peeps refuse to beg and instead travel throughout the city to find meals at churches and other places of worship. It is true, there are multiple places for people to find free food in NYC but you have to be willing to travel on the subway. This is problematic because it costs $2.50 every time you jump on the train. So while there are multiple places to get a meal it is not always feasible for the folks to travel to get food. At West End Collegiate Church we offer a soup kitchen to all those wanting a meal. I have become friends with some of those who have learned to survive the streets of the Concrete Jungle. Every week I learn new stories. These stories act as wood to a fire in my heart as I yearn for justice and for “thy kingdom come.”
It can be overwhelming to receive numerous stories about surviving the same streets I walk on, thriving. It can be overwhelming to walk down the streets knowing in each block there is someone asking for money. I get why so many New Yorkers just pass by people. It is very easy to dismiss each person shaking their coffee cup full of change. It is easy to become cynical as one imagines where that change might be spent. But, as a follower of Jesus, we must never become people who dismiss others. We must not grow numb to the image bearers around us. I am not suggesting we are responsible for giving money to each person who is begging -- though I would certainly hope that we find places and people to partner our financial giving with. But we are responsible for offering dignity to each person we meet.
Every Gospel story is full of Jesus offering dignity to the people around him. He restores dignity – this is salvation for some. So what does it mean to follow Jesus on the streets of New York City when people are asking for money daily? I offer the advice that a brilliant and compassionate parishioner at West End Collegiate Church offered me. You may not always be able to offer money. You may not always be able to pick up a meal for someone. But you can always look at someone in the eye and acknowledge their presence. If someone is begging for money and you decide not to offer them change you can look at them in the eye, acknowledge their need, and say that you cannot give today. In doing this, you are actually giving them something and that is dignity. By acknowledging someone’s presence you are moving from the narcissistic madness of New York and reminding yourself of the greater community.
This doesn’t solve the web of issues around homelessness and disparity in New York City but it does offer a way to follow Jesus. Step by step justice can be restored through the acts of the compassionate people. This is a beginning step. I pray that this first step inspires disciples of Christ into more steps of justice. I pray that we can bridge the gap between those of us who live with roofs over our heads and those of us who call the night sky our roof.
As the late Dorothy Day, a woman whom I look to for wisdom, said:
I firmly believe that our salvation depends on the poor.
And as Jesus said:
Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. Matthew 25:45
And as The Belhar Confession calls forth:
The church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.