Tag Archive | homeless

Let Me Introduce My Neighbors to You

Marian and kittenWhen I was a little girl growing up on a Wisconsin farm, I thought of four families as being our neighbors: the farmers across the road just west of us – the Henry Henderson family; the farmers who lived on the farm immediately south of us – The Mulcaheys; the farmers just east of us – the Scotts; and Ruth and Merrill Kenseth, a brother and sister who were double cousins of my mom (their moms were sisters and their dads were brothers) – and they lived on the farm across the road north of us. I didn’t really know any of the neighbors very well, except the cousins. Sometimes, on a nice summer evening, I would walk over to the Kenseth farm to play with their barn cats while Merrill was milking the cows, especially when there was a brand new litter of kittens to play with.

I think the main reason I didn’t know the other neighbors very well is that they didn’t go to the same church as we did, and we primarily socialized with the people within our own church. Occasionally, Danny and I would walk down to the Mulcaheys to play with Michael and Margaret, the two kids in their family who were about our ages, but they were Catholics, so we were discouraged from playing with them too much. We grew up thinking of Catholics almost like a different tribe. They didn’t really believe in God quite like we did. They believed in Mary and the pope and saints and who knows what all… We were Methodists and we knew Jesus Christ as our personal savior. Back then we were taught to avoid people who were different from us, even if they were neighbors.

When I went away to college, obviously I had new neighbors. Living in a dorm, I had roommates, who essentially became my on-campus family. My new neighbors were the young women who lived in the rooms adjacent to and across the hall from us. Since I went to a small Christian college, these neighbors were all members of the same “tribe” and we all became friends.

Williston Hall - cropped - adj

My dorm at Wheaton College

After college I moved to a small town in Connecticut where I was an English teacher. I rented an apartment in a relatively new apartment complex of about 20 units. I had two kinds of neighbors in the apartment complex – relatively poor families who couldn’t afford to buy a house, and young teachers who were new to the community. Basically, we became two tribes. I had very little contact with the other tribe.

4429-4433 N California

Our Chicago two-flat. Sidewalks separate us from our neighbors.

After a couple years in Connecticut I moved back to the Midwest, met Mim, and the two of us lived in Chicago together for 20 years. While we lived in Chicago, at first our concept of neighbor was not very different from what my concept of neighbor had been when I was a little girl on the farm. The houses next to us on all four sides were our neighbors, and to varying degrees, we became friends. Further down the block in any direction we didn’t even know the people, with a few rare exceptions – like when we got our first puppy, we got to know the other families on the block who had dogs.

Gradually, after living in Chicago several years, we began to think of the term “neighbor” in a little broader sense. We thought of neighborhoods, and neighboring neighborhoods. For a few years we attended LaSalle Street Church, located between Sandburg Village – an upscale high-rise residential development and Cabrini Green – the most notorious, gang-infested housing project in Chicago. The pastors at LaSalle prompted us to re-think how we should love and care for our neighbors, and just who our neighbors really are.

Back in Cambridge, after 20 years in Chicago, my concept of neighbor continued to evolve. I still thought of my neighbors as the people whose homes (or farms) were adjacent to ours. But then we subdivided the farm. Most of the acreage became new housing – a small apartment complex (The Hamptons), a condominium development (Stone Meadows, where Mim and I now live), and a couple residential subdivisions (Winterberry and Summer Prairie). Would all these new housing units, over 100, shelter a whole new community of neighbors for us? Mim and I tried to start out being neighborly by bringing homemade cookies or bread as a welcome gift to each new neighbor as they moved into their home. We kept that up for about the first half-dozen or so neighbors, then we stopped. I guess I need to think a little harder about just who my neighbor is, and how I should treat them…

Stone Meadows

This is where we live now. Our condo is on the right.

So why am I thinking so much about neighbors today?

Sheriff Mahoney

Sheriff Mahoney

A week and a half ago I went to the annual meeting of the Jail Ministry. Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney was a special guest at this meeting, and he gave a short talk about the needs of inmates. Sheriff Mahoney said that his biggest hope is that the people of Dane County would stop thinking of jail inmates as violent criminals getting exactly what they deserve by being incarcerated, but rather think of jail inmates as their neighbors. He said that 80% of the inmates are in jail for crimes related to their addiction to drugs or alcohol. They need healing, not punishment. Mahoney said that in his 35 years of law enforcement experience, he has not known even one inmate that was rehabilitated just by being kept in a cage for a while. For all inmates who have been successfully rehabilitated, they succeeded because they were in an environment that provided the resources that enabled them to heal. The chaplains and volunteers of the Jail Ministry are an important part of those resources – people who care, who listen, and who try to help the healing process.

Mahoney closed his remarks by coming back to his biggest hope – that we all start thinking of inmates as our neighbors.

The dictionary defines neighbor in geographic terms – “a person living near another.” [www.merriam-webster.com] But the Bible broadens the definition of neighbor significantly, as this New Testament incident illustrates.

Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?”

He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?”

He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.”

“Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”

Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”

Good Samaritan sketchJesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.

“A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’

“What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”

“The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.

Jesus said, “Go and do the same.” [Luke 10:25-37 The Message]

Dulce Maria Family-cropped

Dulce Maria is the little girl on the left.

According to Jesus, it’s very important for me to love my neighbor, almost as important as it is for me to love God. In order for me to love my neighbor, I need to understand who my neighbor is, and Jesus makes it pretty clear that it’s not just the people living in the houses adjacent to my house. I think Jesus would agree with Sheriff Mahoney, that the inmates of the Dane County Jail are my neighbors. But that’s not all. Immigrants from Mexico and the Near East and actually all over the world are my neighbors, too. Dulce Maria, the little girl in Honduras that Mim and I sponsor, is our neighbor. Homeless people in Cambridge and Madison are our neighbors. Anyone who needs someone to listen and care and help. Anyone who needs to see God’s love in action in their life. These are my neighbors.

I guess I have more neighbors than I thought.

 

 

 

 

 

Kindness or Foolish Generosity?

5dollarThere, I did it again. Two and a half years ago I gave $5 to a stranger who asked for a dollar or two to buy gas to get home for Christmas. I was at a McDonald’s parking lot just off the interstate between Cambridge and Wisconsin Dells.

This time was just a couple weeks ago. Mim and I were walking down West Mifflin Street in Madison, just off the Capitol Square.  We were headed back to the parking garage to get our car after attending a wonderful Saturday morning piano and organ concert at the Overture Center. A woman, probably in her 30s, approached us and asked, “Can you give me $2 so I can get a bowl of soup?”

Purse - WalletMim said to her, “I don’t have my purse with me,” and looked at me. So did the woman.  With all eyes on me I lifted my tiny wallet out of my little purse dangling from my wrist, and pulled out my wad of folded bills. I always keep my money in order, so my smallest bill was on the outside of the wad. It was a five. I peeled it off and handed it to her. “I don’t have any ones. I hope this is OK,” I said with a grin on my face as I handed her the $5. She looked at me a little strangely and took the bill. She said, “Thank you,”  and we walked our separate ways.

Wallet with $5 in wadAfter a few steps Mim asked me, “Do you think we’ve been conned?”

“I don’t think so,” was my reply, “but even if we were, I’m sure she needs that $5 bill more than we do.”

I didn’t think any more about the incident for a couple weeks. Then last week, it popped into my mind again. I have no regrets for giving $5 to the woman, whether she used it for soup, or not. But I started thinking about what would have been the best way to handle the situation. I guess my most obvious options were to A) ignore her and keep walking toward the parking garage, or B) give her some money. But I wonder if there are any better options.

When I lived in Chicago and worked in the Loop, I walked by people asking for money every day. I never gave a dime to anyone. I rationalized that my money would go farther by giving it to church or other social service organizations, which I did. In retrospect, I think I was being very unkind. By simply ignoring everyone who asked me for a quarter or a dollar, I made it perfectly clear to them that I didn’t care about them or their problems. Which I guess was true. My actions proved it. As I look back, I’m surprised at how hard-hearted I was.

homeless womanI suppose that some people who  walk up and down the street asking for a dollar or two are desperately trying to get money for drugs or alcohol, and that giving them money is simply delaying them getting into some kind of treatment program. And I’m certainly not skilled at identifying which people on the street are really hungry and need a bowl of soup, and which ones are focused solely on getting enough money to support their addiction.

Living where I do now, I don’t meet people on the street asking for money every day – maybe just a few times a year is more likely. But it happened a couple weeks ago, and I know it will happen again sometime. When that time comes, I want to do what our pastor is constantly encouraging us to do – to be Christ’s hands in this world – I want to be kind like Christ was. But what does that really mean today?

Floey smiling profileAs I was thinking about this, I turned to my usual source for wise insights. I asked Floey what she thought. “Hey, Floey. What do you do when someone you don’t know asks you for some help?”

“What do you mean, Mom? What kind of help?”

“Well, what I’m really asking, Floey, is what should I do when a stranger comes up to me on the street and asks me for a couple bucks. I know you don’t carry money around, so it’s not quite the same thing for you, but what do you think I should do? The person apparently needs help, but that’s the only thing I know about her.”

“Does the person make you feel scared? When a scary stranger comes up to me I growl at them and start to back away. I don’t want to hurt them, but I don’t want them to hurt me either.”

“No, Floey. The kind of stranger I’m talking about is someone who really needs some kind of help, like maybe just a couple dollars to buy a meal. She might be a homeless person.”

“Oh, then the answer is easy. Give her what she needs, if you can. Remember when you first adopted me last year, and we talked about my Native American roots – how I came from an Indian reservation in Minnesota?”

“Yes, I remember talking about where you came from, Floey.”

“I told you that in my Native American culture, the greatest sin of all is stinginess. The reverse is also true. The greatest virtues are love, kindness, and generosity – the opposites of stinginess.”

“I guess if I believe that, too, then the answer should be obvious – I should give the stranger what she asks for, if I can. I should be loving, kind, and generous.”

“Yup. That’s what I’d do. I’d give her what she asked for, if I could.”

“But what if I’m being conned – and she just wants me to give her money because she’d rather ask for it than work for it?”

“You can’t know that. You don’t have that piece of information about a stranger you’ve never met before. You only know what you can see and hear at that moment – and that’s what you’re supposed to act on.”

“Thanks, Floey. That’s good advice. I think I’ll try to keep a few dollars handy in my pocket whenever I can, just to be sure I can be loving, kind, and generous the next time a stranger approaches me on the street and asks for a couple dollars.”

“I think that’s a good idea, Mom. Now do you know what I’m going to ask you for, even though I’m not a stranger?”

“I’m sure I can guess. Yes, Floey. We can go on a walk! Thanks for helping me finish this blog post first. Now let’s go sniff out an adventure.”

Floey sitting smiling 07-06-15

Floey – ready to go for a walk.