(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.”
We 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 internal 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.