Thank You For Looking At Me: Encounter on the Street

November 7, 2010
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

THE SERMON                             

There is a light at the intersection on Mass. Avenue in Boston that you might have to stop at before taking a left turn to get in the lane for 93-South. If you do, street people will approach your car to ask for money. You can ignore them, just stare ahead or lock your door or fiddle with your radio, and they'll go away. They don't have a lot of time to get back to the little concrete island before the light changes and their objective is to get some money, so they'll move on fast.

If you do make eye contact with the people who approach your car, you might shake your head "no." You might smile while doing this, or you might not. You might roll down your window and hand them some change or a few bucks. You might feel good or bad or maybe just uncertain what you feel about that. What if they're going to spend that money on booze or drugs? What if your three bucks is just a pathetic little Band-Aid for their life of privation and suffering? What if your money is actually an insult to their humanity for being such a paltry amount?

You resolve not to make eye contact the next time, vowing to make a contribution to organizations that combat hunger and homelessness, trusting that that's a far more productive response than giving little hand-outs here and there. But the next time a panhandler approaches you or you walk by the guy jingling his cup of coins in the street, you feel the same pang of uncertainty. It is one of the few times in your life when the question "WWJD?" (What Would Jesus Do?) actually crosses your mind. You remember him saying, "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink." You think about Mother Theresa. And you dig in your pockets for a bit of change and give it over, feeling sad and maybe a little bit guilty as you walk away. Or angry: Why did I just do that? or Why didn't I do more?

This is not a sermon that sets out the problem of hunger, homelessness and poverty that provides statistics and an analysis of any of those problems, nor does it suggest solutions. This sermon is the story of what happened when I decided to treat every request for my attention in the same way: that is, to respond in the moment to every request for my attention and care whenever it came, without any regard for that person's status, location, race, color, religion, age or whatever. What that means is that if a parishioner approaches me and asks me to help with an event, or a homeless person asks me for money either verbally or with a sign or with a gesture, there is no difference in the way I will respond. I stop and listen to the question, consider the request, consider my resources of time, talent or treasure in that moment, and I respond. "Sorry, I can't," is perfectly acceptable. I just have to give every reasonably respectful request fair consideration no matter who is making it. Most of the time I am able to accommodate requests. If you need my time or attention, you will almost always get it. If someone needs the money in my pocket, he or she will always get it, or as much of it as I can possibly spare.

Some of you may remember my arguments with our first UU Principle, the one that states that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I think that's a great ideal but very hard to defend in light of the reality of human sins, failings and evil. So I prefer the second principle, which is that we affirm "justice, equity and compassion" in human relations. I like that second principle because it tells me what to do with the high ideal expressed in the first principle, and since I need direction in my life, I appreciate that. Justice: food and shelter are basic human rights. Equity: a member of First Parish Unitarian Church in Norwell is worthy of my time and attention. So is a homeless person on Boston Common. Someone has resources and someone else has none. The right thing to do is to share those resources. Compassion: I can't walk by suffering. I should not make up stories about someone else's reality. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Maybe it was Charlotte who first caused me to think about this in a systematic way. We met at the Target in Minneapolis this past June when I was in the Twin Cities at our General Assembly. I had about an hour before I had to get to a baby shower I was hosting, and I had to pick up some party things. Charlotte was in the aisle with the baby items with me, and she made eye contact. We stared at each other for a moment and assessed each other. She was holding diaper wipes or something and trying to figure something out about prices and I was sensing that something was not right, so I approached her. I'm a busybody by nature and I love chatting with people in any circumstance, and this is how I get into the best kind of trouble I think a person can get into in this life, which is that you get pulled into people's messes and help them get out of it, just like you hope people will do for you when you get into a mess. It's called being angels for each other.

So it turned out that Charlotte was definitely in trouble, and she had such a tale of woe that I actually got suspicious. That's cynical, I know, but it is the consequence of having dealt with more than a few con artists. Not that I asked to see it, but Charlotte had evidence to support her claims. It came down to this: she had a new baby, Kiyami, she had just moved to town because her daughter was murdered in Chicago, she had a teenaged son, she didn't have food because she had finally scraped together enough cash to pay rent and that was all the money that any of them had until pay day, which would come when she found a job. So we got her groceries, you and I (because this is exactly what the Minister's Discretionary Fund is for) and we got the baby diapers and soap and things that he needed and I put Charlotte onto the bus with $40 cash, which is what I had in my wallet -- and a happy armload of four or five bags full of things she needed, and I have no idea how that story ends.

One thing I have learned about responding to everyone's requests with equal attention is that I can't always have a stake in the outcome. I will do what I can in the moment and sometimes beyond, and I am involved in organizations that make ongoing, institutional efforts to address human need. But I can't stay with every story as a case worker would with a client. That can be frustrating, but it's reality. You help, you move on. Sometimes you can make a more lasting connection but more often you can't.

But what if you're just enabling an addict, or giving spare change to a pimp or keeping a dangerous schizophrenic on the street? Each one of us has to decide what to do with that ethical risk. I choose to take it. It comes down to the assumptions I used to make about street people. Those were assumptions I would never make about any of you, and I didn't like that. It didn't seem fair or even rational, especially given the realities of our economy. In the church, someone comes up to you at coffee hour and says, "So-and-So is sick at home. Could you bring him or her some soup or a casserole on Monday night? " You look at your schedule and whether you can add that casserole to your own grocery budget and you say either yes or no. You don't ask, "Well, are you sure that person is worthy? Do I approve of their lifestyle choices? Are they mentally ill or a drug abuser? Are they in a social class that I can relate to?" You just bring the food. Because we're the church and that's what the church does. The church feeds, because we are fed. We are given life each day whether we deserve it or not.

Our theological tradition informs us that we live in the lap of an immense Love that excludes none of us. A life lived in response to that love is one that encourages us to respond to need not just within our own beloved community, but to strengthen us and make us wise enough to extend that sense of beloved community out into the world -- even the parts of the world that scare us or make us uncomfortable. Equity. Compassion. Feed the hungry. Visit the prisoner. Those in our Partakers Prison Ministry know this, and know the richness of moving beyond that fear and discomfort.

You might wonder, "Well what if someone is mentally ill, or under the influence? That could be dangerous. You shouldn't stop and talk to them." Dearly beloved, do you think there are no mentally ill or drug and alcohol addicted souls in this generation and all generations of this congregation? We're all just people. It's amazing how access to health care and a hot shower, some soap and clean clothes can separate the world into decent and indecent or respectable and outcast. When you get up really close you see that it's all an illusion.

Walking down the Mall in Washington, DC this summer I passed a few guys sitting in the heat on the side of the pedestrian path and asking for money. They were calling out the usual things, "Excuse me, ma'am" or "Nice day, sir, can I ask you something?" And tourists were passing them by. One of them said to me, "Excuse me." I turned to him and said, "Yes?" And he said, "Oh, thank you for looking at me." And I kind of lost it. Maybe because I had been walking around the city on my own for a few days and really tired of people treating me like I was crazy for trying to strike up a conversation. Maybe it was because it takes no time at all to acknowledge someone's presence and it's so ugly to watch people do it, and because I've done it so many times myself. Maybe it's because I had just watched the Washington, DC cops wake up a young, clean-cut male Asian backpacker who was sound asleep on a park bench and ask him for ID and scare him to death, and I was tired of all the nonsense. I was tired of all the suspicion.

Whatever it was, I stopped dead in my tracks and spoke to the man. "Don't ever THANK anyone for looking at you!" I said. "That is just SO depressing! If people can't even look at you, they're the ones with the problem, not you!" And I ranting went on and on about basic human decency and this man was crying with laughter. He was a fairly young, handsome guy but really a mess. He had cuts on his face and he reeked of alcohol and he was dehydrated and hungry and needed money. It was scorching outside, so I took him to lunch in an air-conditioned café and fussed at him to drink two bottles of water and when he laughed at me I said, "This is the price you pay for accepting my hospitality. You have to deal with my nagging. It's called Equal Exchange." I think that's fair.

My friend and I spent most of the day together, walking around the city, ducking into air-conditioned buildings to cool off, and talking - talking about music, talking about unemployment and poverty and alcoholism and why romance is lousy and we figured something out. We figured out that he drinks too much because he's lonely and scared - and we figured out that I talk to people on the street for the same reasons.

So this is my confession to you and to anyone else who wants to take up this experiment of responding to everyone with equal attention: yes, it's about trying to live more fully into religious commitments around justice, equity and compassion. But I also do it because I'm lonely and I want to see what can happen, how I can be brought into human relationship by making myself available to it wherever that might occur. I find, perhaps not surprisingly, that people on the street are far more honest, open and attentive than their more ostensibly together and successful counterparts, whose attention you might sustain for a few minutes between phone calls and texts and important obligations.

And I'm scared too, just like my companion in Washington, DC that day admitted to being. I'm frightened of a world where we have so little regard for basic civility and mutual well-being that we have to pass a law that prohibits text messaging while driving, or require so many parents of school-aged hockey players to attend anger management classes, or whatever the latest madness is. You know what I mean.

One Sunday night this past September I was feeling lonely and wishing I could go out on the street and strike up a conversation with someone and share my dinner with them, and I thought, "Well I'm sure there are people in this town who would also like some company and also some home cooking! In fact, I am learning that there are plenty of people in this affluent community who don't have food at all, and folks living in those motels on Route 53 who don't have a kitchen." And that's how I got the idea for the Community Dinner. We're having our first one tonight at 6:30. Eventually I hope it can become a shared program among all the Norwell churches and we're working on that. But for tonight we're hosting and you're all invited.

As for that intersection on Massachusetts Avenue that you hit before taking a left and getting on 93-South: I save all my singles for the week and keep them in my glove compartment in the car. Every Tuesday night when I'm driving home from rehearsal I hope I'll get a red light on Mass. Avenue, and sometimes I slow down even if the light is green and risk getting honked at. I get my money ready, little bundles of four or five singles, and sometimes I have some sandwiches or snacks, too. When the people in the street approach my car I roll down my window and give them a little roll of bills and ask them how they're doing. We have a quick word and I may pass them a bag of food and then I say these two things every time. I say, "Take care of yourself," and I say, "Stay safe!"

For some people, just looking at them feels like a blessing. Why not add to that blessing with a smile, and an expression of care? If you want to put a few bucks behind it -- or lots of bucks -- that would be nice, too. If not, your blessing is a start. We're having ravioli tonight. Bring the kids.