I can see Jesus in your eyes

I’ve been thinking a lot about something a disabled homeless elder said to me today in the course of our half-hour conversation on a busy downtown sidewalk: “I can see Jesus in your eyes.”

I posted the statement on Facebook in spite of my hesitation, as I don’t want my interactions to come across as “Hey, look at me and how great I am,” nor am I soliciting compliments or accolades. The reason I decided to post his comment was because I felt he needed to be heard.

Apples and rocks near the creek

But as I contemplate his kind words, I want to break down what he said because I think there are several important sub-themes in that short sentence.

1) “I can see.” He is conscious of his surroundings. He is paying attention. His disability does not render him completely unaware of what is happening around him. In his particular case, his vision is functioning, but even if he had been speaking metaphorically, the point is that he notices people.

Owl eyes

2) “I can see Jesus.” In the context of our broader conversation, what I heard was that this man has faith that his circumstances will get better, and he hasn’t given up on life. As a severely burned amputee with chronic related health problems, his daily struggles are sometimes overwhelming.

Some branches of Christianity might treat his declaration of faith as an evangelical victory—as if his life here on planet earth is merely a long-suffering prologue—but I didn’t experience his statement as being focused on doctrine-specific rules of “how to get into heaven.” Rather, I sensed that he felt a connection to something larger than himself that could sustain him during particularly difficult times.

3) “I can see Jesus in your eyes.” There have been times when I’ve encountered people who seem to view Christianity as some sort of game to see who can “convert” the most “unbelievers.” Sometimes this takes the form of long testimonials describing journeys of darkness into salvation. Perhaps more often, attempts at conversion involve telling others what they should believe and what they should (and should not) do in order to be saved from eternal damnation.

Socialize with compassion, kindness, and grace

But religious doctrine aside, I experience “seeing Jesus in others” when I meet people who are kind and generous to those who are typically judged, condemned, out-cast, or marginalized. Those kindhearted souls aren’t always religious devotees (and, in fact, there have been times when I’ve encountered self-professed religious devotees who are also incredibly cruel, judgmental, and hypocritical).

Just as Jesus challenged those who valued doctrinal rules over compassion, we’re called to follow that example by being generous and welcoming of those who have been socially rejected. I don’t see this as some sort of sacrifice or noble gesture on my part because, quite honestly, those who have been condemned or scapegoated by society tend to be the people I most easily connect with, perhaps because I also know what it feels like to be treated cruelly. Furthermore, I believe this type of compassion transcends any specific religion and can be an aspiration for us all.

Heart-shaped leaf

4) “I can see … your eyes.” Moving back to a simpler observation, this man reminded me that he could see me seeing him. Have you ever felt too uncomfortable to look someone directly in the eye? Imagine what it is like to be out on a street corner, holding a sign that asks for money, and know that people don’t want to look at you. I’ll go into this in greater depth in a follow-up blog, but for now, the point is that even people who are used to being ignored can still be aware of the fact that they are indeed being ignored.

Just because we turn and look the other way to avoid seeing something (or someone) that makes us uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean our actions go unnoticed. And when we do take the time to look someone in the eye, that other person might actually notice. The mutual recognition of visibility can be a reassurance that, yes, our presence on this planet does indeed have meaning.

Come on people now, smile on your brother

I contemplated about whether to write about this, but decided to in spite of my trepidation. My hesitation is because I want to avoid this coming across as a “look at how open-minded/tolerant/fill-in-the-blank I am” story. That’s not what this is about. It’s a reflection on how we interact with the people around us on any given day, and what we gain from those encounters.

This evening after I had finished hanging out at a coffee shop getting some stuff done, I decided to stop by one of my favorite restaurants for takeout. (I’m traveling at the moment, so I find myself dining out more frequently than normal.)

As I was walking back to my car, a man asked me if he could have my leftovers. It’s pretty common around here for people to give their leftovers away, so this didn’t catch me off-guard. I explained to him, though, that I hadn’t actually eaten any of it yet, and that my vegan meal might not be particularly appealing to him.

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Then I asked him if I could buy him dinner. He looked at me with surprise and said that I didn’t have to do that. I told him that I would be glad to if he wanted something to eat, but that if he just needed some money, I could do that instead–and that I didn’t want him to feel like I didn’t trust him to make his own decisions about what to do with whatever I gave him. He took me up on the dinner offer, and after asking his friend/traveling companion to watch his stuff, we walked a couple of blocks to another restaurant.

We looked at the menu, and I asked him if any of it looked good. He responded that it had been so long since he’d been to a nice sit-down restaurant that he couldn’t really process the number of menu selections. I pointed out a few popular options, and he settled on a burger and fries. Not a low-quality fast food burger, but real, actual meat.

When we walked in to the restaurant and up to the bar, he was surprised that no one told him that he had to leave. He wasn’t used to being accepted in such an environment. I asked him if he felt uncomfortable, and he said that he was fine.

It took about 20 minutes for the order to be prepared (in the middle of happy hour), and we visited at the bar while we waited. He told me about all the states he has visited (he travels by train), and I found myself fascinated by his adventures. No one gave him a hard time, and I didn’t even notice if anyone stared at us.

Then when the food was ready, I asked the bartender if we could have some ketchup for the fries. The bartender came back with a full bottle of ketchup and told us that he’d like for us to have it. I’m not quite sure whether this man really wants to carry around a bottle of ketchup everywhere he goes, but it was a nice gesture nonetheless. And I’m sure it will be passed along to someone who will use it.

We hugged, wished each other well on our journeys, and parted ways. As I continued on my walk to my car, I thought about how our encounter is such a rare occurrence. Even for me, this seemed different. I’m usually in a hurry when I’m approached by someone who asks for money or food, and while I might spend a few minutes visiting, part of my brain is still caught up in my own little world. This evening I wasn’t on my way to an appointment or event, and it was nice to have a lengthier, more meaningful conversation.

Back to my lead-in to this blog post, I don’t want to make this story all about me, and yet in a way it *is* about me…and all of us. The man I met today isn’t a prop or accessory. So many times, those in poverty are used and exploited for having homeless people wear a brand

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Homefulness

Every once in a blue moon, I stumble upon a community of like-minded people who feel like lifelong friends from the moment we meet. That’s how I felt when I attended the Revolutionary Change Session hosted by POOR Magazine in San Francisco this past June. The weekend was truly transformative, and I’ve been blessed to continue building the relationships that started over that powerful weekend.

I’m writing this as a member of the Solidarity Family that’s committed to supporting POOR’s efforts. We converge by way of a conference call each month, email regularly, and I have Skyped several times with a longer-term member of the Solidarity Family who has served as something of a mentor to me.

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In the course of our conversations, we’ve talked about how to get out the word about POOR’s innovative efforts to create an alternative to the poverty reduction models that treat poor people as if they have no wisdom and expertise about how to overcome their own challenges. It’s a difficult subject, but even the words “overcome their own challenges” hint at a paternalistic philanthropic attitude of “Here, if you’d only do things my way, you’d be so much better off.”

That sort of approach is elitist and often misses the point about why some people struggle with long-term poverty. The thing is, I’ve lived in poverty. Short-term situational poverty, but full of struggles nonetheless. My dearly departed mother often worked three or more jobs to make ends meet, and even then, there were times when our electricity got cut off. It’s hard to talk about even now because we closely guarded our financial situation from our surrounding community.

One thing I learned is that poverty can be incredibly isolating. People judge you all the time when you’re poor. They look at you as if you’re somehow less virtuous, as if you deserve your situation because you have failed. It’s incredibly humiliating. And it often happens in the places where people go to seek help, such as soup kitchens, welfare lines, and homeless shelters.

POOR Magazine's current office is in the Mission District of San Francisco. This area is currently undergoing "gentrification," which is a fancy word for raising rent as a way to push out the people who have lived and worked there for generations.

POOR Magazine’s current office is in the Mission District of San Francisco. This area is currently undergoing “gentrification,” which is a fancy word for raising rent as a way to push out the people who have lived and worked there for generations in order to make room for wealthier folks.

I’m fortunate to live in a town where the local soup kitchen is incredibly welcoming and non-judgmental, but I’ve been in a receiving line where the volunteers “serving” looked at me with condescending pity. If you’ve ever experienced that look, you know what I’m talking about: the “I’m so thankful I’m not you” look. The “I’m doing this so that I can be reminded that my life isn’t as bad as I thought” look. The “It’s a good thing I get to go home after this” look.

POOR challenges all of that because it’s led by people in poverty who are often busy worrying about how to get through the day and how to help others who are in a similar situation. It’s really powerful stuff. With every email message and phone call, I learn more about my own attitudes and limitations as I hear about the struggles that others are currently facing.

It’s because of those dialogs that I’m super-excited about a project called Homefulness that POOR has launched. Homefulness is a viable solution to the problem of homelessness, and although the current project is based in Oakland, California, I honestly believe that this model has the potential to transform communities all across the country. The thing that makes it work is that people in poverty are making decisions about what works for them, rather than having social service agencies tell them how to do things.

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Homefulness sounds so appealing that I’m actually a bit envious that I won’t be living in that amazingly supportive and equality-centered community myself. The land has already been purchased, and pro bono architects and engineers have jumped onboard because of how exciting the project is. In other words, highly skilled experts have agreed to work for free because they believe in the power of this movement. The City of Oakland has been incredibly cooperative as the project has moved forward, and construction should start this next year. Even now, the land (which has already been purchased in full) is growing vegetables for a community-based garden. Really cool stuff.

I’d like to invite everyone who reads this to contribute to the fundraising effort that will bring Homefulness to fruition. There’s currently a challenge grant that will match dollar-for-dollar ever donation up to $35,000, and over $6,000 has already been raised. If you give $10, it will immediately multiply to become $20 thanks to the challenge grant.

You can support Homefulness through POOR Magazine’s website (if contributing via PayPal or check, be sure to put “Homefulness” in the memo in order to count toward the challenge grant) or with this Indiegogo campaign.

Oh, and I should mention that this project will be eco-conscious. In addition to renovating the existing structures on the property, several eco-friendly adobe homes will be constructed on-site, as well as a cafe, school, and office space. The goal is to use an alternative energy source for electricity, and the garden will make Homefulness even more self-sufficient.

The garden at Homefulness, as imagined by children who will tend to it.

The garden at Homefulness, as imagined by children who will help tend to it.

If you believe in contributing to a project that will help people in poverty become less dependent on government and charitable assistance, now is the time to make a donation. Contrary to what the media tells us, the vast majority of people would prefer not to have to stand in line for food stamps and welfare. Homefulness is a model of how that can start to work, and I believe that other communities can learn from what POOR is doing.

The other thing that I value from POOR’s structure is the way that those of us with race and/or class privilege are reminded that we don’t have a monopoly on how to do things. Sometimes it’s easier to ignore the realities that most of the world is struggling to survive, and then when we do “help,” we want it to be on our own terms. POOR Magazine is also indeed an alternative media source, and the news reports aren’t always warm and fuzzy.

I’ve been thinking about how to present this fundraising initiative to family members, and I realize that some of the word choices and topics might make relatives feel uncomfortable. I think it’s good to feel uncomfortable because that’s how we grow. If we constantly live in a sheltered, protective state, we don’t have the opportunity to stretch our hearts and minds. This includes looking closely at the reality that many people are barely surviving, and considering how this impacts them. Not everything is going to be wrapped up in a pretty package and presented with a glossy-sheen, but that’s a good thing.

So I encourage you to check out POOR’s Homefulness campaign and support it. Also take the time to read and listen to the powerful stories of those who are involved in this movement. If we all join in together, recognizing that we have far more in common than we have differences, we can make this world a better place. And Homefulness is a great place to start.