Monday, June 20, 2011


There are so many things about New York that I love right now.  

Like summer thunderstorms.  Except when you're at the airport, your plane is diverted to Philadelphia, said plane is stuck in Philadelphia due to an oil spill on the runway, your flight from JFK is delayed three times, then it's canceled, and you don't know until 3am the morning of your brother and sister's graduation that you'll be home for said graduation--instead of making a connection in Salt Lake City during the ceremony.  Thanks a lot, Delta.  (Don't worry; I made it home in time.)

Then there's napping in Central Park--and Central Park, in general.  Not to mention all the free concerts, Shakespeare, and other events.

My already-lovely weekends are made even better by extra-sunny church time at City Grace.  Gotta love those massive windows!  Throw in a dinner with a friend, a free Starbucks Mocha Lite Frappuccino (free drink every 15!), or a kid playing "Chopsticks" on Moira Fain's Sing for Hope piano at Tavern on the Green, and we're golden.

And of course, what is summer without ice cream?  My new obsession: je & jo ice cream, specifically the Fresh Mint Ice Cream with Lemon Lavender Shortbread Cookie Dough.  Total foodgasm.

But despite all the sunny loveliness, I see things every day that remind me it's not all beautiful.  Or simple.  Or good.  Or pixie-dust fixable.  

Earlier this week after work, I load up on some produce at Whole Foods.  Mangoes, peaches, apples, celery, lemons.  On the way home, a man passes through the C train, asking for help with food or money.  His speech is slow and labored, his frame bent with the burden of too many hungry days, too much hardship, and very little recognition, let alone respect.  "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.  I am sorry to disturb you.  But I am in desperate need of help..."  He would like a warm meal.  Or money.  

Since moving to the city, I've struggled with how to respond to people who are homeless and asking for help.  Once in a while, I'll offer change, but it seems like such pittance--almost an afterthought as far as real compassion goes.  So food has seemed to be the best I can offer.  Lucky for me, this time I have a bag full of good things from Whole Foods.  

We're almost at my stop, so I stuff my fist to the bottom of the bag and fish out a fuzzy, near-ripe peach.  I stand and offer it to him, "Sir, would you like a peach?"  Obviously discouraged, he shakes his head, points to his mouth, and mutters "Sorry, no teeth."  Sure enough, most of his teeth are missing.  I exit the train, peach in hand, and say to myself, "at least you tried."  It's frustrating.  I want to help.  But dental issues aren't something you think about when you're a middle-class girl with dental insurance and a mouth that probably cost her parents about three grand.

After church today, some of us stay to listen to a talk by Jonathan Walton, Director of the New York City Urban Project.  I learn dental problems are a common challenge for people who are homeless.  I am not the first person whose food offering has been turned down.  I also take away a few helpful nuggets that will make me a bit more useful and sensitive when I interact with those in need.  Ask him his name.  Introduce yourself.  If she's asking for money, offer to walk with her and buy her a meal.  Don't just sympathize, empathize.  Ask about his or her situation, and if you don't understand, ask questions.  Be an active listener.  Don't feel like you have to feed everyone or fix everything.  One person at a time is all we are called to.  We are simply called to be the hands and feet of Jesus; we're not asked to be the entire body.

One thing, in particular, that Jonathan said settled right into my bones: other languages have the right idea in putting the adjective after the noun.  A person's situation should never define them.  He is not a homeless man.  He is a man who is homeless.  She is not a prostitute.  She is a woman who is being prostituted.  Condemn the injustice of the situation, not the struggles of the individual.  Very often, prostituted women are trafficked.  Some homeless people have suffered monumental trauma and simply cannot find a way to cope.  Jonathan told us about a man whose wife had been killed by a drunk driver.  He couldn't bear to return to a closet full of her clothes, so he never went home.  

I guess this is all to say that while you're enjoying your je & jo ice cream and concerts in the park, take time to listen to the difficult stories.  Leave home ten minutes early to talk with the woman you pass on the corner of 34th and 10th every day on your way to work.  Pack some extra food whenever you leave the house.  Give away your post-dinner to-go box.  Offer the man on the train a peach, and then take him to Jamba Juice when you learn the peach won't work. 

It's the little things that count.  And we all have time for that.

1 comment:

  1. I love to learn new things about how to minister to have passed on what you learned and for that I am grateful. I know I often look away when my own self protection instincts kick in forgetting that they are folks just like us. I can't say that I see the amount of folks without homes that you do but there is usually someone with a sign asking for $ at Wal-Mart. Thank you for sharing your insight and wisdom. It always makes me day.