“Neighbor to Street People”

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

We New Yorkers have to put up with a lot, but few aspects of our life are worse than our encounters with street people. They assault us for money, lie motionless on the sidewalk, or rant and rave at the real and imagined misfortunes of their lives.

These lost souls can be rude, pathetic and dangerous, but beyond their unattractiveness, they make us feel guilty. Jesus tells the parable of the man who was robbed and left by the side of the road. He was ignored by pious clergy and prominent laypeople who passed by on the other side of the street and was finally saved by a Samaritan, a member of a despised minority. The Samaritan picked up the wounded man, bandaged him, took him to an inn and paid his bill until he recovered.

If this parable teaches us how to be a neighbor to those in need, aren’t we flatly contradicting Christ’s teaching when we walk by a street person? Aren’t we being hypocrites if we claim to be Christians and yet fail to follow the example of the Good Samaritan?

Of course, we might argue, we can’t possibly help all the street people we pass. During an average half-hour walk in midtown Manhattan, it is not unusual to see a dozen homeless persons. If we stopped to help every one of them, we would end up being full-time social workers.

In saying this, though, are we constructing an easy way out for ourselves? I’ve heard many sermons claiming that we cannot simply pass by those who are suffering on the streets. One sermon even went so far as to say that we shouldn’t just give the poor we encounter a dollar; we should “enter into dialogue” with the beleaguered souls. We should let them know of our concern and, like the Good Samaritan, help them on their way to a happier and more fruitful life.

Now I must admit that as I listen to these sermons, I squirm in my seat. The practical difficulties of such a policy are even more immense than we might imagine. When – all too frequently – street people come up and “enter into a dialogue” with us, we know that even if we gave them money and bound up their wounds and registered them at the Plaza, they would likely soon be out on the streets again – looking for alcohol or drugs or being pursued by inner demons. Studies have shown that a large percentage of the homeless are afflicted with mental illness or chemical dependence. Even with a place to live and a steady income, many would not be able to take care of themselves.

The Good Samaritan model also fails to apply in cases where the person is only apparently in need. We can’t always tell the counterfeits from the real thing, but we can be sure there are a lot of frauds out there. Once, when I was serving a church in Paris, I helped a German man who claimed he needed assistance to get to the northeast corner of France. Several years later the same man entered the church I was serving in Rome. Again, he told me a tale of his travel woes. He didn’t remember me, and he was quite indignant when I reminded him of our previous encounter. Most clergy in urban areas have similar stories to tell.

Beyond the fact that we can’t significantly help all the street people we see and that some of them don’t really need to be helped is the concern that direct personal aid is not always the best solution. Douglas Platt, who ran a center for the homeless near Grand Central Station, once argued in a New York Times Op-Ed article that New Yorkers should never give to panhandlers. That kind of support keeps them out of the social service system, which may offer the only bureaucratic way to get off the streets. Platt contended that the welfare system, though it may be poorly managed, at least offers a chance for the homeless to rid themselves of their addictions and find housing and jobs.

I was somewhat taken aback by this argument that we should not help our neighbor in need. But Platt’s view may well coincide with the Good Samaritan paradigm. For Christ intends to teach his followers two things in the parable: how to find the neighbor and how to love the neighbor.

Finding the neighbor seems relatively easy in the city. And we know that the neighbor includes street people. Few of us walk by the unfortunate without a glimmer of compassion for their suffering and a tremor of guilt that we are doing little or nothing to help them. And though that compassion and guilt may seem useless, our emotions do keep us from becoming completely callous. After all, those who are in need are our neighbors, Christ reminds us.

But once we have found our neighbors, according to the parable we are supposed to love them. Love in the Good Samaritan story means direct physical aid to someone who is badly injured in a robbery. So if we come upon a nearly-dead mugging victim in the street, it would be our duty to call an ambulance – and I think most of us would. Acting on such an analogy to the Good Samaritan’s example is indeed feasible.

But as Platt observes, on-the-spot personal aid to chronic victims of addiction and delusion does little to heal their wounds over the long term. The loving Christian response to these unfortunates may not be Band-Aid assistance based on the model of the Good Samaritan. Rather, we might put our energy into programs which help the homeless, like the halfway house Incarnation is helping now, or which advocate new government responses to the problem. These efforts are also ways to love our neighbors. Even if they do not provide us with the immediate satisfaction of the handout, they are – especially given the magnitude of the problem – important ways to show compassion. Systematic institutional assistance is ultimately the only method for taking care or large numbers of people who can’t take care of themselves.

Beyond participation in these projects, what should Christians do when confronted with requests for assistance from the homeless on the streets? In many years of living in New York City, I have never arrived at a strategy that I consider both theologically responsive and practical. Even with the principles I’ve just outlined, I find that when I refuse direct aid, I feel guilty; yet when I give direct aid, I feel ripped off?

I must be resigned to ambiguity. Whether I give or not, I will be dissatisfied. The guilt will linger. While most street people have problems I can’t solve, they are also much worse off than I am. One beggar I heard in the subway ended his pitch with a brilliant argument for the justice of his cause. He said “Why don’t you help me? Do you really think I’d be doing this if I didn’t need help? Begging is humiliating.

For all good works and organizations and for all the practical reasons for not getting taken in, the residual doubt, the nagging feeling that we don’t do enough, may be hinting at something important. Being our brother’s or sister’s keeper demands more.

Caught between the choice of wasting our money and feeling guilty, at least we can recognize our imperfect responses to God’s claims upon us. We can be comfortable neither with the suffering of those on the street nor with our token gifts nor with bureaucratic approaches to poverty.

The parable of the Good Samaritan begins with a question from a lawyer who has been talking with Jesus. The question is, “Who is my neighbor?” St. Luke notes that in asking the question, the lawyer was “desiring to justify himself,” Much of our own struggle with the plight of street people is an attempt to justify ourselves – to act in such a way that we can feel we have loved our neighbors.

Yet we are ultimately justified by the sacrifice of Christ. We can’t justify ourselves. Perhaps the conflict between our obligation to help our neighbors and the overwhelming needs of street people can ultimately be resolved only in the Cross. That may be the final lesson to be learned from the haunting story of the Good Samaritan.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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