Columns 2008

Feeding the hungry

Let’s put politics aside this week and talk about some realities we will be facing this winter in Anchorage. A public service announcement used to air that pointed out that no one dreamed of growing up to be an addict, or homeless, or alcoholic.  No one dreams of that, but a short jog down some of Anchorage’s meaner streets shows that it happens more often than we imagine.

Because there are organizations dedicated to helping these people, most of us spend our days without giving them a second thought. They are someone else’s problem; except they aren’t. They are our problem because, as that old saying so aptly states, there but for the grace of God go I.

So when someone tells me they don’t mind contributing to the homeless and hungry if they have some assurance that these people will react properly and get off the street and into jobs, I have to wonder where in the story of the loaves and fishes, Jesus requires certain preconditions be met before giving someone food.

Being homeless and hungry is not a choice any of us would normally make. But sometimes it isn’t a choice.  For some, addictions and mental illness preclude making good choices. For others, loss of a job, leaving an abusive spouse or coming in from a village to find employment that never materializes, means very limited choices.

If we aspire to be a truly compassionate society, we simply should not put restrictions on which hungry people will be fed. Yes, we should have programs available to help those who want help and have the mental and emotional faculties to access that help.  But we must not refuse shelter and food to those who do not make the choices we feel they should.

Common decency requires that we help those who cannot help themselves. Common humanity should tell us that a hungry person surrounded by food should be allowed to share in that food. We should care for them because it is simply the right thing as a society to do.

It would be wonderful if, between government and private agencies, we could actually provide enough services to get all of those less fortunate than us off the street and into shelter. It would be wonderful if Bean’s Café never had to feed a hungry child again or Brother Francis never had to shelter someone who cannot run fast enough to escape the demons in their mind.  But I think we can all agree that’s not likely to happen in our lifetime.

So the best we can do is offer the kindness of love and charity to those less fortunate without any strings attached or requirements that must be met. I hate to bring Jesus into this again, because way too many people do and he ends up suffering by their usage; but if you think about it, you’ll realize that he and his apostles were actually street people who lived off the kindness of others. Imagine what our world would be like if the Romans had a program back then that insisted in order for him and his followers to be fed, they first had to come in off the streets and conform to the world as it was then structured.

Jesus didn’t choose wealth. He didn’t choose to preach from a position of power, surrounded by material riches. He didn’t build a temple to himself and demand that people give him a portion of their salaries. Jesus lived off the charity of others while urging his followers to give up everything and follow him.

So the next time you avert your eyes from the homeless person with the handmade sign standing at the intersection begging for money, remember that the man most admired by Western culture was, essentially, a beggar. Then think about the many needy people facing a long, cold and hungry winter in our city…women, children, the mentally ill, addicts of all sorts, and people simply down on their luck. So many more people will need our help than in the past because of the rising costs of heat and food. Ask yourself what would Jesus do? And which of these people would he refuse? Then do something to make this world a little kinder and gentler for everyone.