I’ve been serving food weekly outside a homeless shelter in midtown Manhattan for the last three months. During my most recent visit, Wanda, one of the regulars, asked me for one of the rosaries lying on the table next to the food and drinks.
“You’re going to use that pray for me, right?”
“Why do you think I’m taking it? Of course! I gotta pray for you.”
Over the last few weeks, Wanda and I have been sharing more and more about our life experiences with each other. After her husband died three years ago, she’s been in and out of jobs. She was let go from her last one because a back injury made it too difficult for her to work. She’s been in the shelter system ever since. As much as she’s not a fan of the way this particular shelter is run, she continues to go to it because of the relationships she’s formed with the people there. “They’ve become my little community.”
I’ve told Wanda about some of my experiences at work, about the complications that have come up while moving into my new apartment, and the difficult experience of caring for my grandparents as they approach the last days of their lives.
Wanda and I give each other new intentions to pray for each time we see each other.
My first few visits there were radically different from this one. I remember feeling awkward and uncomfortable, not knowing how to act, speak, or feel.
Some say that doing a good deed like serving at a soup kitchen makes them feel good about themselves. But I’ve always been suspect of that feeling…like something was missing from it. How “good” of a deed is giving a homeless person a plate of pasta, anyway?
After I hand them the food, they are going to enter a freezing cold (they blast the AC) room with no beds, only chairs, with a limited time to use the bathroom and showers, only to be expelled at 5:30 in the morning, have to beg for food or go to a job which severely underpays them, only to come back and do it all over again. On top of that, many of them are up against injustices that are deeply ingrained in the structure of our society. Many are immigrants without documentation, women who have faced abuse at the hands of husbands, lovers, or random strangers, people of color who were fired from jobs for inconceivable reasons.
When I look at all these factors they’re up against, I realize I’m not making much of an actual difference in their lives.
Many people serve the poor out of a sense of benevolence or moralistic duty. Others think that works of charity are useless, insisting instead that people who are privileged like myself ought to advocate for political action so as to make the system more just for people like the ones I’m serving.
But whether you approach the problem of poverty from a position of charity, political action, or the combination of the two…being face to face with someone who is homeless makes you realize how little you have to offer. Nothing I do will fully “save” this person. Each person has their own set of experiences, pains, needs, and desires, which I may never fully understand.
As I’ve continued going to the shelter, my attitude toward this work has changed drastically. Instead of looking to help these people or make a difference in their lives, I’ve started going to learn from them…to learn about them but more so about myself.
It’s become blatantly clear that I have no answers or solutions to give these people. I’ve found instead that I have a lot more questions than answers: who are these people? What has their experience of life been like? What do they care about? What keeps them going everyday? Why don’t they have their own place to stay? Where did they go wrong in life? Or how did others wrong them? How do they find hope in the midst of such bleak circumstances?
The more I’ve listened to the people I’ve met at the shelter, I’ve come to see that I want to know the answers to these questions as they apply to my own life. Yes, I’m extremely privileged. I may never have to worry about finding a place to stay or wonder where my next meal is going to come from. That being said, I do my experience myself to be needy, to be hungry and thirsty, in many ways.
My spiritual “homelessness” and general lack of answers have become a point of commonality and unity with the people I meet every Tuesday night. I find that many of them are people of deep faith. I feel totally free to ask them to pray for me, or to talk about some of my own sufferings, questions, and desires, and how my experience of faith colors them.
I recently read Chris Arnade’s book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. Formerly a Wall Street banker, Arnade found himself disillusioned with life in what he calls the “front row.” Like others in the front row, Arnade described himself as “open-minded, considerate, and reflective about my privilege. I read three papers daily, I watched documentaries on our social problems, and I voted for and supported policies that I felt recognized and addressed my privilege. I gave money and time to charities that focused on poverty and injustice.”
Part of living in the front row includes a sense of having evolved beyond antiquated or even backward beliefs and attitudes toward life: “Most of us in the front row had decided that it was impossible to identify absolutes, that moral certainties were suspect, and that all that we could know or value was what science revealed to be quantifiable. Religion was an old, irrational thing that limited and repressed people—and often outright oppressed them.”
After several years on Wall Street, Arnade started feeling disillusioned with his work and his lifestyle in general. He would often go on long distance walks around New York City to clear his mind. One day, out of curiosity, he decided to take a walk to Hunts Point in the Bronx, a neighborhood that was stigmatized by his coworkers for being “too dangerous and too poor.”
It was then that he started to see “how cloistered and privileged my world was—and how narrow and selfish I was.” This visit inspired him to leave his job and to explore “Back Row America”–the name he uses to refer to forgotten cities that suffer from poverty, joblessness, racism, violence, and drug abuse. His book documents his visit to back row cities around the country. He finds that these cities tend to have two gathering hubs in common: McDonald’s and churches.
“Often the only places open, welcoming, and busy in back row neighborhoods were churches or McDonald’s. Often the people using the McDonald’s were the same people using the churches, people who sat for hours reading or studying the Bible at a booth.
When I first went to the Bronx, I expected that the people there, those most affected by the coldness and ruthlessness of the world, would share my atheism. Instead, I found a strong belief in the supernatural, and a faith that manifested in many ways, mostly as a belief in the Bible.
For many back row Americans, the only places that regularly treat them like humans are churches. The churches are everywhere, small churches that have come in and taken over a space and light it up on Sundays and Wednesdays. They walk inside the church, and immediately they meet people who get them. The preachers and congregants inside may preach to them, even judge their past decisions, but they don’t look down on them. They have walked the walk and know the shit they are going through, not from a book, not from a movie, not from an article, not from a study, but from their own lives or the lives of their friends. They look like them, and they get them.”
While Arnade claims not to have experienced a conversion, he has learned to appreciate and respect the faith of the people he’s met on his visits.
Reading his book shed light on much of my past experiences. I attended an elite private university at which social justice was the main focus of many a class discussion and extracurricular activities. We were reminded over and over again to check our privilege at the door, especially if we were white cisgender males. We were also told to shake off our savior complex. We are not superior to the people we serve. We don’t intend to save them. The most important thing we can do is fight to eradicate structural injustices from the system so that the underprivileged can lift themselves up.
I found this position of radical egalitarianism to be naive at best and facetious at worst. When attending service and advocacy events with my classmates, I found that they often had a hard time facing the people whose cause they desired to support. No matter how many times they told themselves they weren’t saviors stooping down from their position of superiority to fix the problems of the needy, they had a hard time talking freely and openly with the people. That invisible wall dividing the privileged from the underprivileged, the “evolved” from the “still evolving,” as much as they tried sincerely to regard the others as equals, became an obstacle keeping them from experiencing unity and intimacy with them.
I saw the wall thicken every time the underprivileged brought up religious faith. Comments like, “I know God’s got me in his hands,” or “the problem with the world today is people wanna worship themselves and ignore God’s Word…you know what I mean?” would leave them smiling and nodding on the outside, while on the inside they were cringing, attempting zealously to stuff away their condescension for feeling like they have evolved beyond such antiquated beliefs.
My experience of faith enables me to recognize that no matter how much money, education, and material goods I have, I am not superior to the poor. Not because of some vague notion of equality…but because I know that my material wealth doesn’t make me that much more wealthy than them. At the end of the day, I am in need of God’s love, in need of meaning, hope, and beauty in my daily life.
This awareness of my spiritual poverty not only puts me on equal footing with the materially poor, but enables me to enter into a relationship with them. While I may never be able to relate to their experience of being in and out of the shelter system, lacking food and basic resources, or of the burden of systemic injustices, I can relate to their desire for God…not only that, but I can learn from them about it.
One doesn’t have to be religious to communicate openly and develop relationships with those who are underprivileged, but I do think it is crucial to develop a sense of humility and to learn how to listen. And this is the most beautiful aspect of Arnade’s book. It took him stepping down from his seemingly compassionate position of “supporting the poor” through voting for the right politicians and policies–and actually getting to know people’s stories, listening to them, spending time with them–to allow him to understand their experience.
Arnade hints at another key to shaking off the savior complex: dropping the idea that your education and reliance on the hard “facts” proven by the social sciences gives you access to some absolute “solutions” or answers. It’s that attitude the creates the divide…no matter how many times you tell yourself you regard the underprivileged as equals.
The book shows the drastic difference between “supporting” the poor and being one with them. The former assumes that the back row is in need of solutions that the front row can offer them…in short, they need to be fixed. But what does the other truly need? Who are they? Who am I?
My experience has shown me that what’s more important than my supposed answers are those kinds of questions. My questions allow me to approach the poor with humility, openness, and ready to listen.
The renowned liberation theologian Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez once asked, “you say you love the poor, name them.”
What is needed more than structural and political “fixes” is something more basic, is something more human: communication, friendship, and love. Arnade shows us that the first step can start with learning a person’s name. The rest will follow.