30 September 2013

The Importance of Dignity

The approach of October 1 at my day job is always a time of craziness, and that made for a really trying week.  It's hard to believe that September is already over, and you know that the next 3 months are going to fly by.  Here in the U.S., the stores have a couple aisles side-by-side devoted to the seasonal stuff.  It's a combination of Halloween costumes and candy/Thanksgiving turkeys and fall leaf decor and Christmas decorations!  And that's really how it's going to come and go in a flash!  It seems like just a few months ago that I was writing about my daughter's wedding, and in just a couple weeks, she and Eric will be celebrating their 1st anniversary.  Already!

This time of year marks the beginning of the approaching holiday season.  In general, people tend to be a little more generous during this time of year...usually.  I know that the economic downturn, however, has made it stressful on many of us.  It seems that the bills are always there, no matter what.  And then life throws us a few curveballs along the way:  the car breaks down (we know what that's about!), you've got to take an unexpected trip, medical expenses, etc.  It's easy for us to get stressed out about finances.  And then the Christmas season is just around the corner and with it comes the gift giving madness...you know how that goes.

As difficult as it does seem to get at times though, it's not as bad as it could be.  We still have a roof over our heads, food in the fridge, clothing on our backs, and a bed to sleep in at night.  At least most of us do.  And this week, I wanted to talk about the part of our population that doesn't have these blessings.  The homeless population.

If you've been following my blog or listening to my podcast, you know that I am involved in our In His Shoes homeless outreach.  I am in tune to this vulnerable population...not only because I work downtown, but because I was brought up with parents that cared about them as well.   For the past 6 years, we have been providing meals and clothing to the homeless population on L.A's streets in the skid row area on a monthly basis.  And recently we have partnered with Glendale's homeless shelter and we are now providing homecooked meals to the residents there.   This gives us the opportunity to not only have fun cooking for them and watching them enjoy our efforts, but it also gives us a chance to sit down with them, talk to them, and to understand that they are no different than we are....except that we have support systems, and they don't.

Today, though, I wanted to write about those that don't even have the four walls of the shelter to keep them warm and dry.  I write about those that are living on the streets because I want to share some things that I've witnessed over these past weeks, months....years.  Especially as it deals with dignity.

I witnessed something this past Monday morning that is still pulling at my heart today, nearly a week later.  I take the bus into downtown L.A.  And as I got off at my stop, there was a group of us standing at the signal waiting for it to turn green.  I noticed a woman about 20 feet away.  She looked poor, though I can't really tell you she was homeless.  I could tell she had tried very hard to put herself together.  She wore pants and a shirt.  They were clean but very worn.  Her hair was combed to the side, her shoes had holes.  I could tell she was thinking about something.  I understood from her posture and from working with the homeless that she was trying to get the courage to ask for help.  She came closer.  Right next to me was a beautiful woman, dressed to the "t".  Shoes, clothes, make up, matching bag, jewelry were all perfect and her hair was layered and flat ironed.  She was very well put together.  The poor woman approached her.  I heard her start the conversation which went something like this:  "Ma'am, good morning.  I love how you have your hair.  The way it's layered.  It looks so lovely on you....."  Okay, now if someone said this to you, would you not have the courtesy to say, "Thank you"?  I was really taken aback when the pretty woman stopped this woman in mid-sentence, held out her hand like a policeman stopping traffic and said, "Stop!  If you're going to ask me for money, I don't have any!"  If you could see the poor woman's expression of horror when she was confronted this way.  I heard her mumble something about needing only 35 cents...and then the poor woman apologized.    I was so sickened, and saddened by this.  I wanted to follow her as she walked off and give her money, buy her food....but I couldn't because at that moment that's not what she needed.   she had lost her dignity.  I know how mortified she felt at the rich woman's response. She had mustered up all the courage she had to approach this woman in the first place, and then to be rejected so terribly.  I couldn't make it worse by showing her that I had heard the whole thing. I watched her gather herself together and walk away.

You've heard me talk about my homeless friend Bob.  I learned a long time ago to allow him to give back to me as well  Over the course of the 5 or so years that I have had the pleasure of knowing him, he has given me so much:  a penny with a hole stamped in it; a box with an Alaskan fish painted on it; a bag of nuts; a piece of candy; a white chocolate egg....and most importantly his wonderful friendship.  When he first offered to share some candy with me, I thanked him and refused.  But I noticed how that made him feel.  When you're homeless, people avoid you.  It's a given that you're going to ask for help.  You already feel invisible as people avoid you, walk around you, don't acknowledge your presence.   The simple act of talking to someone, and sharing something you own with them, makes you feel like you too have something to share. Like you too can contribute to the friendship.  One of the things that Bob likes most, more than donations or food or money, is when people stop and talk to him.  If you call him by name, he's your friend for life.    And so I accept Bob's gifts of friendship.   And I cherish them.  Because here is someone who has so little.  Everything he owns is packed onto his wheelchair...yet he has so much, that he wants to share it with me.  I am touched by his friendship.  Bob has got dignity!

A few years ago, I witnessed this dignity in a homeless man on one of our Skid Row outreaches.
We had pulled up to our first stop on 4th Street and San Pedro.  There was a small encampment of people living in boxes (if they were lucky to have a box) or on the sidewalk.  It was a cold Fall night, and a man came up and asked if I would have a pair of shoes for him.  He said that he had shoes, and if we didn't have any, that was fine. But he thought he'd ask.  The sidewalk had puddles from the rain that day, and the man's shoes were canvas and looked a bit damp.  I dug around and found a pair of leather high top shoes.  I held them up and asked if he could use them.  He looked at them.  He smiled.  He said they looked great.  He hoped they fit.  He said he wouldn't take them if they didn't fit.  And he took the pair of socks I offered him and set about to try them on.  While he was trying them, I asked if he could use some soup, an emergency blanket?  A rain poncho? "I'm good," he said.  "I have everything I need, but thank you."  

The shoes fit.  He was smiling....and stomping around.  Then he did something I will always remember.  He handed me his canvas shoes, and said, "I'll donate these to you.  They're worn, but someone else can make some use of them.  Oh, and I'd like to give you a donation."  When I thanked him but said it wasn't necessary, he said, "Oh, no, I know it's not necessary, but I'd like to.  It's important that we help one another.  And your group is here helping us."  He pulled out two rumpled dollar bills from his pocket and handed it to me with thanks.  I was so touched.  He looked like all he had was the clothing on his back and the new shoes on his feet.  But he was happy.   You could tell he had been on the streets for a long time.  But he still had his dignity.  He didn't want to take without giving back.  

These are just a few examples out of many that I've experienced on the street.  The economic downturn can cause us all be feel less charitable.  Of course, we're all feeling it.  That feeling that, "I can't help someone else.  Some days it feels like we can barely help ourselves."  But is that really the case?  Like I mentioned, if we have a roof over our heads, clothing on our backs, food in our tummies, then we CAN help others.  Maybe we can't give financially, but do you have enough food?  Then maybe you can pack an extra sandwich one day a week and pass it to someone who is hungry.  Maybe you didn't get to eat that apple that you packed for your lunch?  The gift of a piece of fresh fruit is a blessing to someone who is living on the sidewalk.   Okay, maybe you don't pack your lunch.  Maybe you're out on a business lunch...how about putting some of your lunch aside in a doggy bag to share with someone on the street?  

The weather is starting to get chilly in the evenings.  Going through your closet you find a sweater or two that you haven't worn for a couple years.  It may be a designer label, but what good is it doing in your closet?  Wouldn't it be nice to share that with someone who has no sweater?  You see what I'm saying?  This may all seem really obvious to you, but when I talk to people about the homeless population, I hear lots of different opinions and some of them are very negative and judgmental.  And is it our place to judge?   Nope!

When you think about it, we are all vulnerable without the love and support of our family and friends.  Remove them from our personal equations and then think about what would happen if you didn't have them as your support net.  Then think about not having that support, losing your job, losing your home, and then maybe having a dependency problem on top of it all.   Life is not easy these days.  It's it's especially tough when you're robbed of your dignity by having to ask for food and money.  

I also realize that not all of you have contact with homeless individuals, but there are still shelters and food banks that could use our help.  With Christmas approaching, there are families that need help.  What about adopting a needy family (with your family) and providing groceries for them?  Donate to your local food bank, volunteer your time at a shelter.  Get involved with charitable giving.  At our church, St. Peter, we have all kinds of programs to help make our Thanksgiving and Christmas more meaningful.  We have our annual food drive where we provide turkeys and food to needy families in our community, we have a toy drive to provide toys for the children of domestic abuse in the shelter, and our annual blanket project has us all knitting and crocheting beautiful masterpieces to give to those in hospitals and cancer wards.  What about you?  There's so much to do.  And so much we can do.  But what we should never do is rob someone of their dignity.  It's only the giving that makes us what we are!

So whether you can give financially- and many, many, MANY thanks to those of you who so generously donate to our ministry and our homeless outreach - or you can give of yourself...the importance is in giving...from the heart! 

As we start this new season and gear up for the Thanksgiving and Christmas, let's all work together in sharing Christ's love, compassion and peace with ALL those that we come in contact with.
If you're interested in sponsoring one of our homeless outreaches, you can shoot me an email at anushnoor@gmail.com

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