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But Who Is My Neighbor?

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When you’re kind to people, and you pay attention, you make a field of comfort around them, and you get it back—the Golden Rule meets the Law of Karma meets Murphy’s Law.
― Anne Lamott


At the outset of this paper which is focusing on the ethics of how we, as humans, treat and interact with each other, I’ll begin with a story which I feel is an excellent example of human kindness. I also have to qualify this paper in that while this is for an ethics class in philosophy, I am working towards a dual degree in philosophy and religious studies, thus there is overt religious language ahead.

January 2014 I was in Manhattan taking seminary classes. As is the norm, January in New York was cold. I had just had lunch with a few classmates and was out for a brisk walk then a coffee before returning to class. As I approached the Starbucks on the corner of 35th and 6th I saw a man that was often just outside the front door. He sat on the sidewalk on a piece of cardboard staring straight ahead with a small plastic bucket in front of him and another piece of cardboard written as a sign asking for money. As I approached the door I reached into my pocket and put whatever change I had into the bucket. He looked up at me and said thank you. Our eyes met and for a brief moment time had stopped. We were just two people—humans on planet earth—both of us God’s children trying to make it through this life. “I hope you have a good day,” I told him, he replied “Thank you; God bless you.”

After getting my coffee I looked around and saw that the only available spot was the counter, a shelf really, which is in the window facing 6th Avenue. And as I stood there sipping my two dollar cup of coffee, which cost more than what I put in the man’s bucket, it felt odd; I felt a little guilty. With his back to me, this man was sitting on the sidewalk directly in front of me and the only thing separating us was a thin pane of glass. Yet I was on the inside and he was out in the cold. The biblical passage where Jesus was instructing his disciples how to treat strangers (and how they unknowingly treated him) came to mind, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35-36, NIV).

There was a food cart on the corner of the street, and as I looked out the window sipping my coffee I could see another man talking with the vendor and also looking over at the man on the sidewalk. A minute later he walked over to the guy sitting on sidewalk, and in his hands were hot dogs and sodas, but what happened next brought tears to my eyes. At first I thought he was simply buying food for the guy, but what he did then really amazed me. He sort of knelt down and said something to the man; I of course couldn’t hear him as I was safely ensconced on the “inside.” Then, after a moment, he sat down next to the guy and they both ate their hot dogs together, right there on the cold sidewalk. He did more than simply feed him, he sat with him, saw him as an equal, and gave him dignity.

There are more than 1.6 million people living on Manhattan Island but on that day I saw these two lives converge, and it was beautiful. In a way they were communing together as two souls; the bread they broke were the hot dogs, the wine they drank was soda, and the altar was the cold New York Street.

I wanted to tell this story because I feel what I really saw that day was love in action, and that’s what life is really about isn’t it? Connecting with one another and taking care of each other. The writer and philosopher, Peter Singer, argues that this is not something that is a casual occurrence, but that it is our duty as fellow humans, “Effective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most we can. Obeying the usual rules about not stealing, cheating, hurting, and killing is not enough, or at least not enough for those who have the great good fortune to live in material comfort, who can feed, house, and clothe ourselves and our families, and still have money or time left to spare. Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living an ethical life involves doing the most good we can” (Singer, 2016).

Correct me if I’m wrong, but nowhere in any sacred or philosophical text from any tradition does it say “every person for themselves.” I’ve never heard of a great sage, philosopher, or mystic say to “take what you can because you deserve it,” nor have I heard, “the person who dies with the most stuff wins.” It’s just the opposite. What I’m talking about, of course, is the Golden Rule. This is something that I truly believe is written on each one of our hearts, and deep down each one of us knows it. There are versions of this in every faith tradition, but they all say the same thing. Here are a few examples:

Judaism: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (The Bible, New International Version, 2011).

Hinduism: Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. (Sacred-texts.com, 2017)

Taoism: The sage does not dwell on his own problems. He is aware of the needs of others. (Tao Te Ching, 2017)

Islam: None of you has faith until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself. (Sacred-texts.com, 2017)

Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. (Sacred-texts.com, 2017)

My favorite version of this comes from the Christian text in the tenth chapter of Luke, which is the introduction to the parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer quizzes Jesus; he inquires, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus, being clever as he was, answered the lawyer’s question with a question, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer being an educated man smartly rattles off the answer, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” To which Jesus replies, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:25-28, NIV). Now just for a minute, let the tail end of this statement sink in…“do this and you will live.”

The lawyer must have thought for a moment, and realized that it would be easy for him to love God with everything he’s got so long as he doesn’t have to love all of his neighbors. So just to be perfectly clear, he asks Jesus his final question, “and who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29, NIV) to which Jesus replies by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, which of course is the story of a stranger helping a stranger, and also another excellent example of human kindness, but even more importantly an example of how we should live.

We as a species are hardwired to be caring and want to make a connection with one another. Scientists using advanced imaging technology to study brain function have found that the human brain is wired to reward activities such as caring for each other, cooperation, and service.  Merely thinking about another person experiencing harm triggers the same reaction in our brain as when a mother sees distress in her baby’s face. But the act of helping another person triggers the brain’s pleasure center (Greater Good, 2017).

In an age where sensationalism sells and good news doesn’t always make the news, the media likes to portray the world as a dangerous self-serving place, but this is not necessarily the case. “If the world seems to be a more violent and dangerous place than ever before, however, this impression is an artifact of the media. There are plenty of violent people, but for any randomly selected person today the chances of meeting a violent death at the hands of his fellow humans is lower now than it has ever been in history (Singer, 2016). Good still abounds all around us, sometimes we just have to look for it.

That same cold winter in New York much of the country had a cold snap, even in unlikely places such as Georgia, and that’s where Dr. Zenko Hrynkiw was at the time. He is an accomplished brain surgeon and was at Brookwood Medical Center and had to travel to Trinity Medical Center, six miles away, to perform an emergency operation…but then the snow hit and Georgia was declared a state of emergency.

The doctor knew that getting to the other hospital by car was not an option. He also knew that his patient had taken a turn for the worse and if he didn’t get to them soon and perform the operation they would die. Dr. Hrynkiw is not a spry 20 or 30 something, he’s not even 40 or 50; he’s in his 60’s. But knowing the facts at hand he didn’t hesitate. He did, what I believe is within each one of us; he set out to help. He walked the six miles with an overcoat covering his surgical scrubs, and booties still on his feet, and made it in time to perform the surgery and save the patient. Later, when asked to be interviewed he commented “he didn’t know what the big deal was, he only did what anyone would have” (NPR.org, 2017).

So I ask again, who are our neighbors? Is it the person living in the next apartment, just beyond a thin wall? Sure, of course. But who else. How about the person you meet on the street? Or a co-worker. Dr. Hrynkiw certainly knew, and deep down so do we. I truly believe this.

I recently finished reading an inspirational travel book by the journalist Mike McIntyre, The Kindness of Strangers, Penniless Across America. The gist of the book is the that author walked and hitchhiked from his comfortable home in San Francisco to the east coast. He did not bring a cent with him and would not accept money, nor would he ask for food or lodging. As the title suggests he was literally relying on the kindness of strangers. During his journey he found that most people just wanted to help one another, “Once again I am amazed at how often it’s the ones with little to eat who are quick to share their food” (McIntyre, 2014).

A couple years ago I was working as chef at a private city club, “the second oldest club of it’s kind in the country,” its members like to proclaim. I would serve the “upper crust” of society while much of the kitchen staff was paid below living wages. Saw Tin was one such person, he was a dishwasher at the time, but prior to fleeing his native Burma he was an engineer. Though with little English skills this was the work he could find in America. I do not speak Burmese so we spent a lot of time pantomiming. He is about my age and was working to save enough money to bring his wife and adult daughter here.

On one Monday morning he came to me with a wallet he had found on his way to work; it was on the sidewalk, he motioned. When I opened it, it contained more than $100 in cash and 10 credit cards. We turned the wallet over to the police who then contacted the owner. When she came to retrieve it she commented that everything was intact; nothing was missing. Saw Tin had full opportunity to take the cash and credit cards without anyone finding out, but he didn’t. The women asked to meet him so she could thank him. When they met, Saw Tin greeted her with clasped hands, a brief bow, and a soft namaste. Namaste is a Sanskrit phrase which loosely translates as, “my soul recognizes your soul” (Geno, 2017).

But who is my neighbor? Saw Tin knew. Acts of kindness, big or small, can really make a huge impact on a person’s life.

The basis of what the philosophers, especially Immanuel Kant, refer to as moral philosophy is moral action, and if I’m reading this correctly, this is how a person responds to the world. Kant also argued that the basis for morality is freedom (Palmquist, 2008). If this is true then we have the freedom to choose good action from bad. What I find interesting, and even a bit contradicting, in Kant’s theory is that while he was not necessarily a proponent of compassion (Greater Good, 2017), he also suggested that we listen to the small voice within each of us (Palmquist, 2008). To the philosopher this small voice may be the voice of reason, but to me I truly believe this to be the voice of compassion.

The Epistle of James, which is one of the oldest books of the New Testament and is said to have been penned by James, the brother of Jesus, is really a small book of Christian ethics. Some say it is a blueprint for the way a Christian should live, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save you? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes or daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:14-17, NIV).

Richard Taylor in his book, Restoring Pride, suggests this inner knowing and selfless service are a sort rule of manners, and even though he writes of pride, he also argues that this is not pride but refers to it as considerateness, “Thus, the rule of considerateness has no connection with pride, but is a practical rule of manners. It guides you unerringly in your relationships to all other persons, whether they be friends, kin, or total strangers” (Talyor, 1996).

By now you’ve likely gathered that I like to use stories, everyday events, as ways to illustrate my point. Well I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on something that just happened. I was about halfway through writing this paper at a local coffee shop. My head was down and I was “in the zone” typing so I didn’t see the man approach until I heard his scraggly voice say “excuse me.” I looked up and there was a man in front of me who was not pleasant to look at. He was older, looked physically unclean, had a runny nose, and a small open wound on his face. He was asking for money. Here I am writing a paper about the Golden Rule, quoting Jesus and other sacred texts, and there is Christmas music playing in the background. Is this some sort of a test, I thought?

I often give the homeless spare change, and stop and talk with them, but for some reason I was put off by how I was approached; he had a sort of aggressive manner. My first inclination was to say no I can’t. But then I thought to myself (the small voice within), can’t or won’t. I felt my pocket and there was no change, so I reached for my wallet and handed him a dollar. Seeing the loose bills in my wallet he asked if he could have another, I handed him another and as I did an employee came by and shuffled him out. I realized then that his aggressive behavior was likely that he knew he only had a brief moment before he was kicked out, time was of the essence. On their way back in the employee stopped by my table to apologize…apologizing for another human being. Who is my neighbor, I thought to myself?

Philosophy, and even religion for that matter, in many ways seems to be about asking questions, and not necessarily having the answers. Plato, I think, sums this up articulately in his famous but simple statement in his Apology, where Sacrates proclaims “An unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato, n.d.), because I believe with self-examination comes growth, and with growth one realizes that they are not they only person that counts.

There are so many questions which I do not have an answer, but there is one that I do: Who is my neighbor? The answer is everyone, but the difficult part is remembering this and treating each and every person the way that I would like to be treated. But this, I suppose, is what makes us human.

In conclusion, I’ll finish with an eloquent quote from the stoic philosopher, Epictetus, from his slim but inspirational volume, The Art of Living, which I feel summarizes the entire premise of the Golden Rule: “One cannot pursue one’s own highest good without at the same time necessarily promoting the good of others. A life based on narrow self-interest cannot be esteemed by any honorable measurement. Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings. Our contact is not with the few people with whom our affairs are most immediately intertwined, nor to the prominent, rich, or well-educated, but to all our human brethren. View yourself as a citizen of a worldwide community and act accordingly” (Epictetus and Lebell, 2007).

Works Cited

Epictetus and Lebell, S. (2007). The art of living. New York: HarperOne.
Geno, R. (2017). The Meaning of “Namaste”. [online] Yoga Journal. Available at: https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/the-meaning-of-quot-namaste-quot [Accessed 25 Nov. 2017].

Greater Good. (2017). The Compassionate Instinct. [online] Available at: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_compassionate_instinct [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017].

The Holy Bible, New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Bible Publishers.

McIntyre, M. (2014). The kindness of strangers. [Charleston, SC]: CreatSpace.

NPR.org. (2017). Brain Surgeon Walks 6 Miles Through Storm To Save Patient. [online] Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/01/31/269380564/brain-surgeon-walks-six-miles-through-storm-to-save-patient [Accessed 23 Nov. 2017].

Palmquist, S. (2008, November 8). The Tree of philosophy. Retrieved November 21, 2017, from http://staffweb.hkbu.edu.hk/ppp/tp4/

Plato. The Apology. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from The Internet Classics, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html

Sacred-texts.com. (2017). 1:12: Anas: The Prophet said, None of you will have faith till he wishes for his …. [online] Available at: http://www.sacred-    texts.com/isl/bukhari/bh1/bh1_11.htm [Accessed 23 Nov. 2017].

Sacred-texts.com. (2017). Sacred-Texts: Hinduism. [online] Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/maha/ [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017].

Sacred-texts.com. (2017). Introduction and Preface. [online] Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/tantra/maha/maha00.htm [Accessed 23 Nov. 2017].

Singer, P. (2016). Most good you can do. New Haven and London: Yale Univ Press.

Tao Te Ching. Acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu. (2017). Tao Te Ching. [online] Available at: http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html [Accessed 23 Nov. 2017].

Taylor, R. (1996). Restoring pride: the lost virtue of our age. New York: Prometheus Books. 

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Two Guys Talking on a Street Corner

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[This is part of a series on Faces of the Homeless and street people, for more in this series click here.)

All things are linked with one another, and this oneness is sacred; there is nothing that is not interconnected with everything else.” ~Marcus Aurelius

At first glance one would not likely think that Gary would be asking for money on the street. Dressed in khakis and a turquoise colored Polo-style shirt embroidered with a little sailboat insignia, he would appear to be just an average middle-aged guy waiting for a bus. But there was something in the way that he scanned people as they passed that I new he was panhandling. I was on my way to a local tavern when I first noticed him as I crossed the street. He looked both shy and a little scared when he asked politely, “Excuse me sir, can you spare some change for a disabled veteran?” Knowing the only money I had on me was a twenty dollar bill, and I was on my way for a beer, I looked him in the eyes and politely but selfishly replied, “No, sorry buddy, I can’t.” As the words came out of my mouth I thought to myself, “can’t” or “won’t,” but still I walked over to the tavern which was just a storefront away.

After the bartender brought me a pint she set my change on the bar, and as I looked at it I couldn’t help but think of Gary who was standing just a storefront away. So I set my book next to my beer, grabbed a ten from the change, told the bartender I’d be right back and walked over to Gary. He looked a bit startled as I walked back towards him, and without offering any money I introduced myself and asked if it would be okay to ask him a few questions and possibly take his photo. Not surprisingly he was leery and wanted to know why. I gave him my card with my blog address and explained to him that I was doing a sort of research with people on the street, that I wanted to hear their stories. He agreed, so here is Gary’s story.

Gary is 49, he’ll be 50 next month. He’s not homeless, he has an apartment which is subsidized. I asked him why he is on the street asking people for money and he told me to help pay his bills. His apartment is subsidized but it’s not free, he told me, and he also added that he doesn’t drink or do drugs. He’s only been panhandling for a “short while,” he also told me. When I asked him what it was like when he first started asking people for money, he averted his eyes, looked down and said, “It was humiliating, it still is, but I have no other choice.”

Gary is a veteran who served our country but here he was on a street corner asking people for money. In the age of affluence in which we live, how can this be, I wondered? He didn’t look physically disabled, I knew it had to be something else, so I asked him. “I hear voices,” he told me, “that’s why I can’t hold a job.” It first started while he was in the Marine Corps, back in 1989. Doing the math, Gary would have been in his early twenties, the age at which schizophrenia often emerges in a person, and this is what he is diagnosed with.

I have found that often people just need someone to listen, and that’s what I did. The two of us on a city street corner on a beautiful summer evening. Just two guys talking.

“I have tried so hard,” Gary told me. He asked me to imagine what it would be like to try to hold a job while people were talking to you from inside your own head. I cannot imagine, I told him. “I have fought back with this disease,” he added. He earned his associates degree from Alfred State, and also holds an electrician certificate. He’s tried to hold jobs, but he can’t. “I’m scared,” he said, “I try so hard but I just can’t do it.” His voice changed and there were tears in his eyes as he said this, which caused tears to well in my own eyes, and now it was me looking away uncomfortably.

It was getting dark now and I asked Gary if he has ever been harassed. A little, he told me, but nothing serious. I encouraged him to be as cautious as he could on this street. It is popular with panhandlers in the evening and I have witnessed some being verbally abused by young college kids coming here for the bars. He knew that he said, and he was planning on heading back to his apartment soon.

Before parting I handed Gary the ten dollar bill and asked again if I could take his photo. I took one of him and was surprised at the big grin he offered to the camera. “I smiled,” he said and then asked to see the photo. On an impulse I asked if we could take one together, which we did. Before parting I offered Gary a bit of encouragement and that I hoped he stays safe and that things will keep getting better. He hoped so also, he replied. Uncharacteristically of me, I almost asked Gary if I could say a prayer for him, but I didn’t, I couldn’t. Instead we talked some more, and I listened.

Back at the bar as I sipped my beer I thought of Gary and hoped he was safe as he made his way back to his apartment. I also thought of how we are all connected in some indescribable way. All of us. Most the time this is difficult to remember, but other times—such as tonight—it is not. It’s as if we enter a thin space, as the Celts call it. That place that is thin enough to get a glimpse through the veil, to see the reality of life and what it means to be alive. While I didn’t offer Gary a verbal prayer, in many ways our conversation—him talking and me mostly listening to his story—was a sort of prayer, something sacred. I need to remember this more often, the sacredness of human interaction. This is what I thought about as I sipped my beer on a warm summer evening with a breeze blowing in the opened front door.

Six Churches in Three Hours…

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I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.”

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Two weeks ago I was in New York City, had a day to myself, and went on a sort of self-guided tour to photograph some of that city’s magnificent churches. Whether or not one considers themselves spiritual I cannot imagine not being moved by these incredible buildings. I have, for most of my adult life, enjoyed sitting in the quiet of an empty or near-empty sanctuary. I find it so incredible calming. The first time I noticed this was after not having been in a church for many years. I was in my late twenties and had crossed the border to Tijuana for a day trip. After many beers and walking in the hot sun I passed the Catedral de Nuestra and her doors were open so I went in. I probably sat there in the cool of the silent sanctuary for more than an hour. Since then, whenever I travel, I often find myself sitting in the quiet of a sanctuary if even for just a few minutes. Anyhow, here’s a bit of info with this photo series.

I wanted to start uptown and work my way down, which is what I did. I was staying at Union Square so I took the train to the upper west side, to Riverside, and began at Riverside Church (pictured above). Why I started with this church, and why it has a bit of personal attachment, is because almost three years ago to the day, I sat in the third pew from the front at the isle seat. It was three days after our ordination as interfaith ministers and on that day it was our graduation. The church, on that day, was packed to the gills with nearly fifteen hundred people. It is a day I will never forget. After taking this photo I went and sat in the same spot. It gave me goosebumps.

The rest of the photos I will simply say which church they are as I don’t feel the need to write a dissertation on them. But, if you are at all interested in this type of thing, I urge you to google them and their histories. So many of them have had activist ministers and congregations and interesting histories. Here’s the rest of the churches.

After Riverside, I walked down to St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University (and oddly this is the only one where photography was not allowed…I found out after snapping a photo without a flash). The next church, and the most impressive is is the Cathedral of St. John, which is not only NY’s largest church it takes up multiple city blocks. I then walked over to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and arrived just as they were offering Communion at their noontime mass. I sat for a few minutes and then accepted communion as the priests offered it, even though I am not Catholic and the walls did not crumble. From there I took the subway down to lower Manhattan and stopped at two of my favorite churches. First St. Paul’s Chapel (where George Washington worshiped on the eve of his inauguration), and then Trinity Wall Street. Both of these churches are very close to Ground Zero and offered aid and shelter to the rescue workers during their services. Click any image for a slightly larger view.

Urban Simplicity.

The Goodness of Others…

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There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Last night I was supremely humbled and nearly moved to tears. I have never been one to use the phrase, God works in mysterious ways, nor do I even like it. It seems too hokey to me. But here I am thinking it is appropriate to my experience last night.

It was Friday evening and I had planned on going out by bike to feed and converse with the homeless or street people. As you likely know, if you’ve been to this blog prior, I do this on occasion but lately I’ve been doing it more intentionally as part of a project for a course in which I am currently enrolled. With this said, I have to admit I just wasn’t feeling it. That’s okay, I suppose, but it is the truth. For a variety of reasons I simply felt spent, as if I had nothing to offer. Nonetheless, I loaded my bike with some bottles of water and bags of chips and headed out.

I pedaled and coasted slowly downtown and stopped at Fireman’s Park, which is a small patch of greenery near the bus station and Cathedral Park. When I arrived there were people on many of the benches, and most looked as if they could be homeless or on the verge of it. Not speaking with anyone, I stopped at an empty bench, parked the bike, and pulled out a book to read. The book, Instructions to the Cook, A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a life That Matters, is about a Zen community that started a bakery, among other ventures, in and around New York City as a way to serve the homeless. But, as the subtitle suggests, it is also advice on living a life that matters.

Reading was inspiring me, and glancing up from my book I noticed a guy sitting opposite me, maybe 20 feet away, was reading also. Just as I noticed this a woman approached him. I couldn’t hear their conversation but she had animated gestures and I’m assuming she was asking him for money. He didn’t give her money but instead handed her his book. It wasn’t until then that I noticed he was reading a bible. They talked a couple minutes longer and she walked away looking at the bible in her hands. I wondered if the book would offer her any solace.

Then a few people got up and started to walk past me. I turned to see where they were heading. There was a car parked with its trunk opened. Two guys were handing out plastic bags filled with something. A woman passed me and as she did I asked what they were handing out. “Food,” she replied. “Come on, hun,” she added, “they won’t stay long.” She thought I was homeless and was helping me get food.

Wanting to speak to the people handing out the food, I packed up my bag, strapped it to my bike, and began to walk towards the car. It’s interesting, I thought to myself, I’m a city guy who seems to blend in easily. Whether I’m in NYC, Toronto, or even Paris, people seem to assume I am a local and ask me for directions. It was at this point when I looked at my bike with a bag of my personal stuff strapped to the front and chips and water in a basket on the rear, that I realized how I could be mistaken as homeless.

When I approached the car I stood to the side of the line, waiting for everyone to go through so I could speak to the two guys. As I stood there another woman, who was now at the head of the line, looks over at me and says, “Are you a first timer?” A bit taken aback, all I could stammer was, “Yes.” Then she looks at one of the guys handing out food and says, “Give him some first, he’s new here.” Holding up my hand in a sort of protest, I was handed a bag of food, “Here you go, brother,” was what he said when he handed it to me. I thanked him and the woman, who now took her share and began to walk away, and I stood there waiting for the last of the people to go through the line.

There was no longer me and them, it was just us, and it felt odd—but extremely humbling—to be on the receiving end.

Just as the last person went through the line, and they were starting to pack up their things and close the trunk of the car, another person came up. He must have been a regular because they spoke to him by name and apologized that they did not have anything left. Awkwardly, I handed him my bag which he readily accepted.

After introducing myself to the guys I found out that they are with a group called Buffalo’s Good Neighbors. There’s a variety of people who help out, they told me, and they are there once or twice a week. They just want to help people out, he added. I asked if I could take their photo and they reluctantly agreed. I gave them a card and shook their hands before I parted. When I asked them their names, the one whose hand was still in mine at the time, looked me in the eye, smiled, and said, “My name is Anonymous.”

 

When I walked my bike back through the park and approached the opposite side, I could see some sweaters laid out on a bench and a guy holding one up to his chest to check the sizing. I asked him where the cloths came from and he told me, “Church people bring them.” I looked at them and could see that they were new shirts. “Go on,” he added, holding the sweater towards my chest for sizing, “they’re free, one will fit you.” I thanked him and hopped on my bike and rode the short distance to Cathedral Park. This is the park which is home to the homeless Jesus statue.

 

There were three people in this micro-park and the first that I noticed was a man sleeping on a bench. It would be impossible to miss the similarity to the sleeping man to that of the Jesus statue which were only a few yards apart. I pulled up to the other two people and asked if they wanted some water and chips. “Yes, please,” they both seemed to say in sync. After handing them each bottles of water and rummaging in the bag of chips to find the type they liked I could see that the sleeping man was awake and now facing me, so I called over and asked him if he, too, would like some water and chips. He didn’t look great as he approached so I asked him how he was doing. “I’m okay,” he said, “but I’ve got a summer cold that’s kicking my butt.” This is probably why he was sleeping covered up on such a warm evening, I thought. I can’t imagine being homeless and sick. When I’m sick all I want to do is lay in my bed or couch. This guy had a bench. 

I sat down on one of the benches and talked with the other guy for a few minutes, just chitchat about the weather, etc. Then as he was finishing his bag of chips he holds up the remaining two, crumbles them in his hands and sprinkles them on the ground for the birds. “They gotta eat, too,” he said with a gleam in his eye as he looked at me.

When I began this evening I was tired. I had been up since 4:30am, it was the end of a long work week, and I was not feeling particularly compassionate. But the series of events that transpired changed things, and in a way changed me. There was the woman who encouraged me to get in line for food, the other woman who let me go ahead of her because I was a “first timer,” the guy who was helping me pick out free clothing, and now this guy sharing his food with birds like some modern day St. Francis. My heart, which in some ways was hardened earlier, was now malleable and split wide open. The light, which is always there but sometimes difficult to see, burst forth and shone not only in the cracks of my own heart but also in those who I met this evening. 

So this is what happened on a particularly humid and windless spring evening in two downtown parks, which in many ways, woke me up to life right in front of me.

It is in giving that we receive.”

~St. Francis

On Being Human…

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Her voice was rather loud for such a petite elderly women, I thought when finally seeing her. I could hear her before I saw her. It’s because I was seated and the subway car was crowded. The car fell silent as she squeezed through people while belting out her spiel, “I’m homeless and my only income besides begging on these cars is collecting bottles and cans,” she said. “Please, from the bottom of your heart, anything will help. I’m a human just like you,” she added.

There was no loose change in my pocket and I knew that the only denomination in my wallet were twenties, which I would not hand off. When she passed by me I was surprised at how average she looked. If not for her pleading I would never have guessed that she was homeless. “There’s probably 75 people in this car and no one can find it in there heart to offer me even a small amount of change,” she questioned? The car was silent, not a single person gave her anything and when she passed I couldn’t look her in the eyes. I was on my way back downtown after visiting the largest church in Manhattan, the Cathedral of St John the Divine.

In a recent philosophy class we were taught to question everything, especially our actions and motives. The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, is said to have gone so far as to question his questions. So what is it, I sometimes question myself, that draws me to offer the homeless and street people compassion?

Spending my formative years in a public housing project, our family was poor but I didn’t know it. It wasn’t until later, after my dad had passed and we were living in the suburbs, when I received free subsidized lunches that I became aware of it, embarrassed by it. It was while living in the projects that a young friend of mine (we were probably 10 years old) told me that before moving into their current apartment, his family lived in a car for 6 months. It was also around this time that I first saw someone sleeping under a bridge, which was on my way to grade school. But still I question my motives.

In New York City this past weekend I was overwhelmed by the stark contrast between wealth and poverty. Homeless encamped outside stores that are telling us we need what they have, some sleeping in the city’s beautiful parks, and also sleeping in churches whose steeples seem to touch the clouds. Most were not as vocal as the women on the train, some simply sat behind handwritten signs, but her voice still rings in my ears. 

I met Jeremiah on 14th Street. His signs caught my attention…they were biblical passages with a message of hope. As I spoke with him I squatted down to be at his level—people rushed past—both of us invisible. He’s worried about his future, he told me, but he also has hope. That is what is really sustaining him, he also added, hope.

There was also David, who was sitting in a wheelchair at Union Square. He had no legs below his knees and his sign read, “Veteran. Please help.” I spoke with him very briefly and I felt tears welling in my eyes as I did. Though I am a pacifist I have the utmost respect for our soldiers that protect us. And now here one was on the street with no legs asking for money. When I put a couple dollars in his cup and thanked him for his service it felt trite. How arrogant of me, I thought, and I was fully conscious of my legs as I walked away. 

When I met Michael, who asked not to be photographed, he was sitting behind his sign on Broadway in Lower Manhattan, not far from Ground Zero. What caught my attention with him was one of the sentences on his sign, “Just want to feel human again.” This was the second time today someone made this reference to being human.

Michael was reading the Bible when I offered him a dollar. When he looked up to thank me I asked him what he was reading. Romans, he said with a smile. I told him that Romans 12:2 was one of my favorite passages and he quickly thumbed through his Bible to find it and recite it. He’s been on the street about 8 months he told me and is hopeful, but at the same time is finding it difficult to find work (I cannot imagine trying to find work without a place to live).

So, I question in this public place, why? Why do I feel the need to speak with street people? Is it because it makes me feel good? Possibly, at some lower psychological level, but I don’t think that’s it. Do I feel sorry for them? That’s not really it either (compassion would be a more appropriate word). I don’t know why, I really don’t. But when I think of all the people I’ve met over the years I do know that we are all children of the same source. And in some ways, I believe, that when I speak with people from all walks of life—and offer a little bit of myself—it makes us a little bit more human.

This Too Shall Pass…

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So I’m in NYC for a few days and staying at my usual place just off Union Square. Yesterday afternoon aa I was heading back to my room I came across this art installation by David Datuna. The reason I know who the artist is because as I was photographing the instillation a young woman who helped install it came up to first t ask if I was with the media, and then to tell me a bit about it. The instillation is made of blocks of dry ice which spell out the word Trump. It is the artist’s response to Number 45 pulling out of the Paris Agreement. What’s interesting is that the artist used dry ice, which is a frozen gas (carbon dioxide), rather than regular ice (which of course is frozen water). The instillation, as it melts, doesn’t leave a puddle. It simply dissipates into thin air…

Urban Simplicity.

The Invisibles.

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Oh no I’ve said too much, I haven’t said enough.”

Michael Stipe

I saw him coming. He was walking his bike towards me and eyeing me, but I really wasn’t in the mood; I wasn’t feeling generous or giving. Brandon Lee, that was his name, he told me when I asked. “I’m not homeless,” he also added, after asking me for money. His bike was loaded down, not in the way someone does if they were touring, but more so it was loaded down with what looked like everything he owned. His bike, he told me, keeps him young. He’s 54, he also added. I’m just a year older than him, I told him, and that I also ride bikes. Such similarities but so many differences. He asked me again for money, to which I skirted the subject by asking him a question, “Hey Brandon, if I wanted to offer food to the homeless, where should I go?” “Outside the bus station would be a good place to start,” he said.” “Really, I was thinking about the homeless Jesus statue,” I countered. “Naw man,” he continued, “That’s just where people go to grab stuff that church people leave for them. The bus station, outside the City Mission, under the bridges by the Mission, that’s where you’ll find them.” I reached for my wallet and handed him two dollars, I felt like I was paying an informant. When I handed him the money he thanked me, called me his brother, and then started rattling off other places to find the homeless. He was still talking as I rounded the corner. I could no longer see him but I could still hear him.

It’snothing new for me to offer street people money, or at least engage with them and offer a little dignity. One person talking to another person. But this was different, in a way. This is a project I am doing for a class I am currently enrolled, Society and Religious Belief. Truth be told, I’ve thought of doing this in the past on my own but never have. This, I thought, would give me the initiative. I was given much leeway with this project and this is what I chose, and now I questioned myself. When offering change and conversation on the streets I’m familiar with, that’s on my terms, but in some ways what I was about to embark on was theirs.

My original plan was to make sandwiches and coffee and carry them on one of my cargo bikes. But I wasn’t sure what to expect and didn’t want things to go to waste, so as a start I opted for bottled water and snack chips. So armed with a case of water and a 24 pack of chip varieties, I headed out by bike.

Against Brandon’s advice, I thought I’d stop at the homeless Jesus statue first as it is only a couple blocks from the bus station, but I stopped before I arrived. Though Buffalo is going through a great renaissance, downtown on a Thursday night after 5pm still turns into a ghost town.

I was stopped at a traffic light at a major intersection and to my right was a guy sitting on a ledge with bags next to him. We were just a few feet apart. I looked over at him and our eyes met, “How you doing, man,” I asked him? He looked down, started shaking his head from side to side and was speaking but it was so soft I couldn’t hear him. He looked to be about my age and was a rather large guy. So I said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.” Now he looked up directly into my eyes and said, “I’m hungry.” I asked him first if he new of the soup kitchens around the city and then recommended a couple. I pulled the bike over and asked if he wanted some chips and water, which he did. After handing him a couple bottles of water I asked him what kind of chips he wanted. “Whichever kind you don’t like,” he responded. He didn’t want to eat the ones that I liked. When I handed them to him he opened them immediately and started eating. His vice was barley audible. His name is Jeff and he’s a veteran of the Air Force. He’s been on the streets “for a while.” I shook his hand and asked if he wanted more chips or water. He didn’t. He never asked me for money or food, or anything.

When I arrived at the homeless Jesus statue there were a few people there so I sat down on a ledge next to the statue. After a few minutes a guy I saw earlier on my ride came by. He was wearing sweatpants and bright orange sneakers that seemed too large for his feet. Walking in a hurried manner somewhat anxious manner, he carried a garbage bag which I could tell was filled with empty bottles and cans, which one person referred to as “homeless currency.” They’ll steal that shit the same as they steal money, he told me. Anyhow, when he approached he started rummaging through a garbage can for more empties. One he pulled out, I could see as he examined it, was full with the tab intact. He popped the tab, I could hear it’s fizzy release from where I was sitting, and then chugged a little. I decided to head to the bus station and as I passed him I asked him if he would like any chips or water. “Oh, no thanks brother, I’m just collecting cans.”

I stopped in front of the bus shelter for just a brief period as there was not much happening there. But while I was there, and as I passed a statue of a buffalo (as in Buffalo, NY), it reminded me of another time I saw this statue after taking a bus from Nashville. I had just returned from externship from culinary school. Both of my parent were already deceased and while I was gone our family home was sold. It was an odd feeling. I remember seeing this statue at night while waiting for one of my sisters to pick me up. I was an adult, of course, but I felt like an orphan. And in some ways that feeling has never left me. I can not imagine the loneliness one must feel when they are on the street. Alone and invisible.

I don’t want to paint this with rose colored glasses in that the homeless are all gentle street people and nice. On the contrary. Many have problems that keep them on the street and being able to function in “normal society (what is normal?), but it doesn’t mean they are not fellow equal humans on planet earth. No one, as little kids, intends to or aspires to end up on the street, but many do. Anyhow, as I coasted to another stop at a red light at a rather deserted intersection there was a person sitting on the sidewalk reading a book. With many bags next to them, they were so bundled up head-to-toe I could not tell if they were a man or women. I look over at them, say hello. “Fuck you,” is all they blurt back without looking up from their book. I was just going to offer you some water or chips if you’d like some, I say. “Fuck you. Get the fuck away from me,” is how they replied. So I rode on.

Then there is Ann. I’ve seen her on a few occasions but just learned her name yesterday. She was in a doorway with her belongings next to her on a particularly desolate and somewhat dangerous street. She was shivering and looked scared. The clothes she wore would be more appropriate on a younger woman but she may have been younger than she looked. I coasted to a stop in front of her, said hello, and asked if she would like some water or chips. Yes, she said. I handed her two bottles of water and asked what kid of chips she wanted, “Any kind is fine,” she said. After talking with her for a couple minutes she interrupted and asked abruptly, “You married?” Taken aback, I smiled and blushed a little by the surprise of the question so out of context, “Nope, divorced,” I told her, “How ‘bout you?” The same, she said. 

 

Night was falling and I wanted to head home, but on my way I thought I’d stop by the bridges that Brandon had mentioned. I’d seen them before as I’d ridden by on bikes or in cars, the people sleeping under the viaducts. When I approached the first bridge it was empty, except for some trash and other evidence. But when I surveyed the upper ledge where they would sleep—where I would sleep if I were without a home—I could see that there were steel bars installed to keep people from laying there.

I pedaled on, and at this point (sorry to be so graphic) but I had to urinate. This is not a problem if one is part of normal society but what if one is homeless. What about defecation. Such basic private bodily functions I take for granted. 

 

At the second of the two bridges there was a small encampment at the top of the bridge. Not at the very top—the shelf, as I’m told it is call—but the next level. This bridge had double metal bars to keep people from laying in it’s most secure spot. I called up, “Yo, you up there?” No answer. I stood there for a minute, trying to imagine that this was my home, temporary or not. The smell of sewer wafted in my nostrils and I shivered a little. I walked up the incline and set two bottles of water and two bags of chips next to the sleeping bag. I pedaled on.

I’m almost home and stop at a bar for a beer, mostly to relive myself but also because I know there is free live music and I need some beauty. I feel fragile. After ordering a beer I retreat to the restroom. I’ve been here before and know that as I stand at the urinal there is a large mirror behind me. A passage of the book, Down To This, by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, comes to mind. The author voluntarily spends time in Toronto’s shanty town, which at the time (early 90’’s) was the largest in North America. He panhandles and plays billiards in bars for money. Anyhow, there’s a passage where he talks about flirting with a person in the bar. He then goes to the restroom and sees himself in the mirror and almost doesn’t recognize himself. He had forgotten, for a minute, that he was homeless and was surprised at how disheveled he looked.

After relieving myself and washing my hands I walked past the mirror but consciously looked away. I didn’t know who I would see.

We’re all just walking each other home.

~Ram Dass

Urban Simplicity.

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