I was walking through a trendy section of my hometown, Washington, DC, when a man, evidently homeless, approached and asked me not for the proverbial dime but for five dollars.
It's hard to know how to respond when I see people on the street in unfortunate circumstances. Sometimes I don't have a good feeling about the situation and ignore them. Sometimes I would like to do something, but I confess I pass by with downcast eyes. Occasionally, when that person is on a route I frequent and I see him or her often, I reserve a little something for them.
In this case, although it was the first time I had seen him, I gave him the money and talked to him about God's love for him. I don't know whether our conversation had any effect on him, but I remember feeling that spiritually we were brothers, sons of the one Creator. I was in that neighborhood several times over the next month or so, and didn't see him again. I don't know what happened to him, but I still see homeless people every day. One of the most urgent needs in today's urban America is the problem of homelessness.
The National Coalition for the Homeless (www.nationalhomeless.org), headquartered here in Washington, reports that 14.4 million families - more than the total population of many countries - have critical housing needs. This problem is not something "out there"; it exists in our front yards, on our sidewalks, and in front of our churches. It calls upon our common shared humanity for a solution.
The coalition has established core values for housing: "Every member of society, including people experiencing homelessness, has a right to basic economic and social entitlements of which safe, decent, accessible, affordable, and permanent housing is a definitive component. It is a societal responsibility to provide safe, decent, accessible, affordable, and permanent housing for all people, including people experiencing homelessness, who are unable to secure such housing through their own means."
Jesus said people have a special responsibility toward those less fortunate than themselves. His striking words are recorded in an extensive passage in the Gospel according to Matthew and are placed just before the Passion narrative, so they seem part of a summing up of Jesus' teachings. He astounded his listeners by describing their acts of charity (giving food, drink, shelter, and clothing) to himself - which they had not done - and concluded, "I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me" (Matt. 25:40, New English Bible).
Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, wrote, "If we turn away from the poor, we are not ready to receive the reward of Him who blesses the poor" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," page 8). How can I do this, I have asked myself, when I seem to be completely occupied with providing for my family and meeting the demands of work, while the problem of homelessness is so overwhelming?
I've found that to the degree that I am successful in keeping God- centered, ways to support those on the fringes of society have come to me. I may not have the time or skill to work for organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, but I can pray that the good that such organizations set out to do is fulfilled. Sometimes I make a contribution toward a worthy goal - cans of food at Christmas, goods to nonprofit resale shops, once even a used car to charity.
What's important is that this impetus springs from a deep concept of the all-loving nature of God and my relationship to Him. This prevents a superficial and bland declaration that "it will get better sometime," from counterfeiting the dynamism of prayer; or a thoughtless dropping of spare change into just any bucket from substituting for spiritually inspired giving.
Jesus referred to the poor as "brothers here," so the homeless man or woman outside in the park or on the street is part of our family, united to us through the one Father-Mother God. I can pray to know that not one of God's children is abandoned or hopeless, and I can act to help when the divine Spirit moves me.