We Have Heard. Now, Let Us Act

Photos by Pilar Timpane

I’m glad to live in Durham, NC.

Yes, we have our problems, like all places. But this is a place where folks are willing to take responsibility for our community–to come together and do the hard work of becoming the city we all want to be.

Last night, we had our first public meeting on Durham’s new anti-panhandling ordinance. Mel Williams of End Poverty Durham greeted the 200 people who crowded into Duke Memorial UMC’s fellowship hall by saying that we evaluate every public policy by one question: how does it affect the poorest among us?

If we are to know, we must listen to them. So we did.

One after another, men who have been ticketed for begging told their stories. Steve told about how, as he was standing on an exit ramp with a sign that said “Will Work,” his old boss saw him and picked him up last month. Now he has regular work and is able to pay the rent. But he came to speak for his friend Keith who just learned that he has cancer and is no longer able to ask for help because it’s illegal. Steve stood to speak for people like Keith who’ve been pushed further into the shadows.

Country shared his story. He told how he started priming tobacco when he was nine years old–how he worked hard every day for fourty-one years before he was injured in a construction accident. On disability now, he gets medical care and a $710 check each month. But when his bills are paid, he’s already five dollars behind. For years, friends in Durham have stopped by Country’s corner and helped him make ends meet. But he got a ticket last week for talking through a car window to someone he’s known for years.

These are the stories that have convinced us that this new law is wrong. They are stories that make us ask, “How could a law like this have come to be?”

Some of us have spent Lent asking this question. When we asked the guys on the streets who’ve been getting tickets, they said, “Nobody asked us before the law was passed.” When we asked folks around town who run our homelessness services, they all said no one had asked them. So we talked to the Homelessness Services Advisory Council–the city/county group that exists to advise City Council on issues that affect the homeless. And they told us no one had asked them either.

How could a law like this have come to be? I think the answer is simple. Durham had not heard these stories.

But now we have. And since we have heard, we have a responsibility to act.

I’m grateful to the City Council members who had the courage to come and listen last night: Cora Cole-McFadden, Steve Schewel, and Don Moffitt. Speaking on behalf of his colleagues, Steve said, “You may be right.” I’m grateful for his humility.

But we as a community cannot rest until we are able to say together, “This law is wrong. It can be changed and it should be changed.” I know Council can do this. But they cannot do it without our help.

So we must move from listening to action. We must take our message to the streets.

As a Christian, I can’t imagine a better time than Holy Week to go to our city’s streets with the good news that a better way is coming–and that we can greet it together. So after we welcome Jesus to Jerusalem with Palm Branches this Sunday, we will gather at the intersection of 15/501 and Mt. Moriah Rd. on Monday at 5pm to stand together against this anti-panhandling ordinance.

A group of local ministers announced today that they will publicly violate the ordinance in an act of spiritual solidarity as the community prays and bears witness to a better way on the road side.

Please join us in working to become the beloved community where all God’s children are welcome and celebrated.

  • James Jarvis

    Too many people think that Jesus said “There must be poor always.” Although I can not be with you in person I will be with you spirit. If the city I live in ever passes such a law and it has tried to do so in the past I will intentionally break that law and encourage others to do the same.

  • Bill Grindstaff

    Greetings Rutba House and Durham,

    We can’t be with you to stand with our needy brothers and sisters in Durham, but we will be lifting you all up to our Lord in prayer as you fight this good fight. We pray that the Lord bless you and make your efforts an inspiration to all around you; you have certainly inspired us to make every effort that we are blessed to render, just as Jesus Himself asked of us all.

    Allow me to share a story from Asheville, not to brag – as our efforts are small and not nearly enough to suffice to meet the needs that exist – but as a prayer that we all see each other as the precious children of God that He sees and as a call to lend a hand and a heart to one that may need whatever it is that you have to offer.
    There is a guy in Asheville that comes to Lunch at the Crossroads at First Baptist that is quite the mess; he touches my heart every time I see him around town. He’s a sweet guy and he seems quite humble and simple; he may have some degree of intellectual challenge and he’s always filthy and clothed with torn and dysfunctional clothing. I’m pretty sure he seldom finds a pillow on which to lay his head – he appears to spend most of his time outdoors. Last Thursday, he came walking into the gymnasium at First Baptist yanking on the zipper of one of his coats, which was stuck badly and wouldn’t come undone – his antics were almost comical as he wrestled with his zipper. He came up to me while yanking this way and that on his zipper and asked what time it was; about five minutes before twelve. He said something else, which I didn’t understand, so I began describing the lunch menu. He said, no – he hadn’t asked what was for lunch – he didn’t care – he said he would be happy to eat anything that we served. He had asked what time we were gonna eat. I told him we would eat in a few minutes, we had some announcements and a devotional to share. He said that was good and he walked away smiling and yanking on his zipper tab. We saw him downtown again yesterday; we recognize him, but I doubt he recognizes us. He has glasses and he’s always squinting and seems to struggle with his vision whether he is looking through his lenses or over them. Honestly, they are probably just readers that he has picked up along the way to substitute for the prescription that he probably needs – I bet he can’t half see what is going on around him. He’s WAY shaggy. As he approached us yesterday – he was walking on the same sidewalk in the opposite direction – I pointed him out to Kate and then I spoke to him. He spoke back to us and then asked us for “73 cents”. He started to explain what he needed exactly 73 cents for, but I cut him off and asked, “exactly 73 cents?????” He said, “well, the more the merrier, but I don’t want to seem greedy; I just need 73 cents”. I never did find out why he needed exactly 73 cents, but as soon as he asked for money, I started reaching into my shirt pocket where I knew I had two dollars as I know this guy can’t function normally in life and I would feed him any time I saw him if I had money to spare. He was amazed to receive two dollars; truly astonished because I bet he didn’t even expect to be given the 73 cents. He was somewhat enraptured and held the two dollars between his prayerfully folded hands under his chin and said, “WOW!!! Two dollars and completely unsolicited!!” I took that to mean that he had only asked 73 cents and that he was surprised because we had stopped him on the street and started the conversation and almost immediately pressed the two dollars on him. He seemed overjoyed. He blessed us and was talking to himself about his shear amazement at being handed two dollars.

    It was a neat and touching experience and this fellow is sweet and comical in his appearance and behavior, obviously operating in life at a deficit of faculties and resources. I seriously doubt he could hold a “job” and may not be able to effectively perform even the most menial and simple tasks; he appears to be that challenged to my healthcare-trained eyes. I don’t know how this man, this child of God, survives and he probably won’t reach old age. He appears to be mid-life, but he may be younger than he appears. We have had some terribly cold weather in Asheville with howling winds and even a little snow recently; where did he lay his head on those bitter nights??? I don’t even know this fellow’s name – I’ll have to ask him the next time I see him – I need to make the effort to get to know him better. We see him around town, usually once a week or so, and he comes to Lunch at the Crossroads regularly. He’s always alone, even in a crowd, and always meek and always gives the impression that he is “busy” with something or other. Always squinting and trying to see what he is looking at. An endearing fellow; I wish I could bring him home and offer him a shower and provide him a new suit of clothes. I wish I had the money to take him to the eye doctor and buy him some glasses. I wish I could afford to build him a little house. He’ll keep scrounging his way through life doing the best that he can and I feel certain that he would graciously accept any two dollars, or any 73 cents for that matter, that life was kind enough to send his way. I am thankful that I had two dollars to spare yesterday and the opportunity and blessing to know that maybe next time, it will be a ten. Life can be so very hard………can you not spare 73 cents for your brother or sister that needs that, and more? I’ll try harder…….

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