Can I Shine Your Shoes?

(Another installment of “Maybe I missed something here…”)

My son and I had just completed our visit to the World Aquarium, and were headed toward Dealey Plaza and an early supper. We were walking a side street in downtown Dallas, still in our Sunday church clothes, when Jeffery smiled and lifted a hesitant wave as we walked past. We returned the gesture as he quietly called from behind, “Excuse me.”

File Jan 24, 6 00 29 PMWe stopped, turned, and matched his few steps it took for us to be within handshaking distance. I extended my hand and said, “I’m Ken.” “Jeffery,” he replied, and turned to my son and shook his hand also, receiving his name as well. Jeffery continued, “I’m wondering if I could shine your shoes, or wash your car? Anything to earn a little money.” Over his shoulder was slung a red partially opened Jansport backpack perfect for schoolbooks. His black wool cap logo matched his sweatshirt, “(NS) Never Satisfied ~ We Trust“. He explained that these were a gift from someone handing them out on the street last night.

My brain, while trying to engage as a fellow human being, also revved up on the “What’s the most helpful way to respond in this situation?” question. A quarter century ago I was the founding director of a Saturday soup kitchen at First Methodist Church, Lubbock. Two decades ago I worked with homeless vets who were residents of an inpatient care and rehab domiciliary program at that Dallas VAMC. When I encounter homeless individuals, I’m wired to relate in a relational and strengths-focused way. I want to honor and respect the unique humanity of each person, and offer what I can to help a person move toward flourishing – in his or her life as she or he understands it.

I didn’t need my shoes shined, and only had $2 in my pocket which seemed insufficient for a shoe shine either way. And I didn’t want to stick around to have my car cleaned, whatever that might entail. I said we were headed to eat, and that he was welcome to join us. He nodded and I asked where he would like to go. “Well, there’s a Williams Chicken near by.” “Sounds fine,” I replied. “We’ve been to Poppies, but not Williams. Let’s go.” We talked along the 3 block journey. I mostly asked questions, though tried not to interview or interrogate him. (I may not have been successful.) We also shared some of our own life stories. Relational includes mutuality, after all. Even with strangers.

We got to the chicken place, 1/2 block from the West End Dart rail station and 1 block from the downtown Dart transfer station – an area with lots of foot traffic. Because the restrooms are only for paying customers, we had to request the key so that we could wash our hands. Time to order. Jeffery was thoughtful about not
assuming – asking before increasing his order beyond some williams chickeninternal threshold he’d determined. I nodded
both times, and then we ordered as well after studying the menu. When we received our food and I’d paid, we sat down, the three of us, and enjoyed our fried chicken and sides. We continued to talk about where we were from, what we’d been up to, and where life was heading. The food was good, and so was the conversation.

Jeffery is black. In fact we were the only non African American folks in the restaurant. While aware of this fact, it did not register that race was a significant factor in this encounter. I didn’t (and don’t) think that Jeffery selected us because we were white. I’m confident that I would not have related to him differently if he were other than African American. My son and I talked briefly about this on the way home, and he noted his awareness of how we had showed up in the midst of what seems like a stereotype.

And then I read on Sandhya Jha’s Pre-Post-Racial America: Spiritual Stories from the Front Lines  this repost from Steve Williams sharing this story told by Professor Steve Locke.

Now I’m not so sure. Did I completely miss something in our encounter with Jeffery? Was I so set on my own interpretation of the event that I didn’t pause long enough to wonder how he might be experiencing it in light of recent events. Was I living out #whiteprivilege?

I saw a homeless man, and I know from my own experience and others’ research that isolation and invisibility are common psychic challenges faced by individuals living in homelessness. Dining With someone is a way to counteract those forces. It is a way to say, “I see you, and respect you, and am happy to share table fellowship with you.” Sure, it was on my dime, so he wasn’t a totally free participant (#myprivilege). That much is clear. I’m not sure how to navigate around that except to say, “Here’s some money for dinner, and we’d love for you to join us.” Unfortunately 1) as already stated I didn’t have the cash for that, and 2) I’ve been around enough people hustling on the street to know better than to hand over cash. I do sometimes, but it’s rare. And he wasn’t working a hustle, he was actually hustling – trying to find work to earn money. In my mind (though not his experience perhaps) race is not a factor in my calculation of how to respond. Perhaps it should be, at least in my sensitivity toward the other and what they may be anticipating, experiencing, or thinking.

I also didn’t honor this man’s request to earn his own way. That much I knew at the outset, but didn’t see a good way around that, except to perhaps say, “All I have is $2. Why don’t you give me whatever level of shine you think that buys,” knowing all the time that would be a merely adequate tip on top of the charge for a decent shine.

So maybe in some way my wrestling, and this writing, help to make up the difference in whatever was lacking in my (our?) attempt to honor Jeffery and his humanity. I hope so. While I’m not color-blind, I also try to not let my vision be color-centric. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can all do better in situations like this. My heart longs for the day when such encounters don’t happen, because people like Jeffery are able to avoid finding themselves in such humbling situations to begin with. I hope my work and life, as expressions of my discipleship to Jesus, help bring about that day.



The Gospel weighted toward the poor?

Continuing the conversation about Mary’s Magnificat here and here.
This begs the question: Is the Gospel good news for everyone?

Perhaps the prepositions need some work here. Good News FOR everyone? Yes, most definitely. Will it sound like good news TO everyone? Not likely. I’m assuming here that we could resolve all of the church’s failures, shortcomings and inconsistencies. This line of questioning has nothing to do with our inability to live up to the Gospel’s call and claim on our lives. For the sake of argument, let’s just say that is all resolved, and all we are left with is the Gospel itself, in its pure and true form.

Hannah and Mary point to what they believe is an essential truth in God’s message of love – that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Those who have been beaten down and left out will be brought in, healed and restored. Meanwhile, those doing the beating and the leaving – they will lose their positions of power over others. This is nearly impossible for us to hear in western culture so defined by power and prestige, where might makes right, growth and strength are signs of privilege to be preferred by us.

from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops

If Mary and Hannah are to be believed, then the God made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth shows “a preference toward the poor,” to borrow language from Liberation Theology. Here is how the US Conference of Catholic Bishops introduces the idea:

Option for the Poor and Vulnerable – A  basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring. In a society  marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the  story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46)  and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. 

And here is an excerpt from Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns intro:

From the Scriptures we learn that the justice of a society is tested and judged by its treatment of the poor. God’s covenant with Israel was dependant on the way the community treated the poor and unprotected—the widow, the orphan and the stranger (Deut. 16.11-12, Ex. 22.21-27, Isa. 1.16-17). Throughout Israel’s history and in the New Testament, the poor are agents of God’s transforming power. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor (4.1-22). Similarly, in the Last Judgment, we are told that we will be judged according to how we respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner and the stranger (Matthew 25.31-46).

I would argue that we must lay these ideas alongside Jesus’ teaching that we must become like little children if we wish to enter the kingdom of God. Children are penniless and powerless. They are humble, weak and poor. And they are our mentors and guides for inheriting the Kingdom to come, which in glimpses and fits and starts is already here.

Follow the weak and the frail?

Could it be that as soon as the church finds itself on the top side of history we must immediately turn, look around, and go sit with those who are on the bottom side?  What if the only way to enter into the presence of God and remain with God is by following those who are dispossessed? Israel was always closest to God when they were the lost bride in need of redemption. When the people were lifted out of oppression and rose to power, almost immediately did they turn their backs on the one who had saved them.

In the midst of all the talk about race relations, community policing, inequity, poverty, crime, and yes, even outright systemic racism, could it be that Christians are missing the point? All of us, White, Black, Asian, Latin, and more? As we are now 12 days before Christmas, I’m reminded of the ways in which God entered into the underside of history, and everyone seems to have missed the point. Mary and Joseph ended up in a stable, which means they didn’t find hospitality from the rich or the poor. Herod tried to kill Jesus, but the wise men did nothing to protect him. The shepherds came and worshiped, and then returned to their fields, filled with joy, but presumably not to change the course of their lives. Even those who may have had some idea who this child was were left untransformed by his presence.

What needs to change in us so that we can finally be humble before those God sends to us as messengers, “Angelos,” to teach us and leads us to peace?

Gilkes’ need to find a place for the four loves

In perusing FB today I came across a post by an acquaintance who has one Anglo parent and one Indian parent. She speaks and writes about the experience of being bi-racial. Her post comments on a blog post by A Breeze Harper  On Buddhist Sanghas, Divesting in Post-racial Whiteness, and Nina Simone. Harper describes…  “what Katherine McKittrick refers to as a black female socio-spatial epistemology. See her book Demonic Grounds and she will break down how we develop our knowledge-base (epistemology) through our embodied experiences in racialized-sexualized spaces in the USA.” Later she asks: After spending the whole day there, I realized how ridiculous it is that I have spent so much time in largely white dominated spaces in which I physically and emotionally exhaust myself trying to explain what “racism is”, how “whiteness operates”, and that, “No, I’m not making this sh*t up in the head.” I have been depriving myself from these types of healing space my nearly entire life. At the end of the day of that retreat, I really asked myself, “What would happen if I stopped participating in certain spaces in which I can never just be ‘me’? What would happened if I shifted and just focused on spaces like the ones today?”

I was struck by how this connected with my experience reading Cheryl Townsend Gilkes’ “The ‘Loves’ and ‘Troubles’ of African-American Women’s Bodies (p81). Gilkes makes liberal use of Alice Walkers advocacy of the “four loves” as “ethical positions associated with a good womanist.” (89) These loves have to do with affirmations of self, embodied experience, and overcoming racial/sexual violence and the external valuing according to white essentialist norms. What Jha and Harper describe is the exhaustion they feel when trying to explain white privilege and the experience of being “colored” (to borrow the term Mary Church Terrell advocates) and the freedom found in a place where one does not need to explain or advocate for self. Yet Gilkes suggests that African-American women in particular often have to justify their existence and work even in their own community partly because of this very diversity in skin color, hair and body type. Given these tensions, how do we work together to create safe space, and what if any role does a middle class straight white male play in that formation? How can I use, sublimate, or relinquish my privileges for the sake of this formation? Can we all embrace the four loves or are they the explicit gift of the Womanists?