Meeting Jesus on the Street (Costs More than Taking the Bus)

Tonight, I walked home from the train station—just under a mile, in the dark—to save $2.10 on bus fare. I’m counting pennies, sorta. I’m admittedly rather lousy with money, and, according to my math, my earnings over the next year won’t…quite…cover my expenses, which are pared down as much as they can be. So I feel the need to hang onto any money I can…except that on another level, I don’t really feel it. This is the time of year I earn the most. I feel like I have the amount I actually have in the bank, not like I have to squirrel away whatever I can for when it’s needed in a few months.

So I walked home in the dark to save $2.10 bus fare, because I discovered (while doing the aforementioned math) that I spend a lot more on transit than I’d realized – more than the $85 in pre-tax transit dollars I purchase each month.

But on that walk, just under a mile, I wound up giving away all $9 I had left on me to three different beggars.

Oops.

Except, not oops. These were beautiful people made in God’s image who asked me for help. How could I say no? Sure, spread out over the course of a year, I don’t have enough to be giving money away. But right now I do, and right now, that woman was standing in front of me, wrapped in a blanket, asking for help. Or that man, hauling off something he said he would be selling tomorrow (it looked like just a wooden crate to me)—he wanted a burrito. He was the first, and I regretted giving him only $2 when I saw the real gratitude in his eyes. He sped off with his crate before I could change my mind. He was in a really good mood, I could tell.

See, the thing is, I take it seriously when I hear Jesus, in the Gospels, saying things like, “Do not refuse anyone who begs from you,” or “What you have done for the least of these, you did for me.”

Except I don’t, really, do I? If I took those sayings completely to heart, I’d be on the street begging myself, having given away the resources I do have. It might be just me, but it seems like the line between “Yes, I can afford this,” and “No, I can’t afford this” is pretty arbitrary sometimes. When I set out walking tonight, instead of springing for bus fare, I honestly felt it was a matter of what I could not afford. How, then, did I have $9 in my pocket, and how was I able to hand it to strangers on the street? Will I ever miss that $9? Would I have missed the $2.10?

I really don’t have an answer to such questions. I’m not sure I want answers. Sometimes I think struggling with these questions keeps us more honest. It would be easy to fabricate answers that would satisfy me one way or the other – most likely to allow me to say “No” to the stranger while maintaining a clean conscience. What is a comfortable answer worth, anyway? $9? $2.10? Enough to make rent in a lean month?

Knowing my penchant for saying “Yes” to the stranger who begs, I guess I should’ve known that spending the bus fare was actually the more fiscally “responsible” thing to do.

But I also get quite an emotional and spiritual lift from these encounters, that I think goes beyond just the happiness you get when you give. I’ve been struggling with depression quite a bit lately, which is part of the reason this blog has been pretty quiet. But I’ve had some very graced encounters during this time.

One was with a woman named Mac. I was walking from work to the train station—in a very depressed mood—and noticed her from half a block away. She was busy sorting through cardboard in a recycling bin, as if looking for just the right piece for such and such purpose. I felt drawn to her, so I slowed my steps until we could make eye contact. I smiled and said hi, she smiled and said hi, and at some point she asked for some money.

I had a $10 bill on me, so I gave it to her. Immediately, she started into an explanation that she was only going to spend it on food and shelter, nothing else. I told her it was none of my business what she spent it on. We proceeded to have a lovely conversation, during which she thanked me several times, told me her name, complimented my haircut (!), and at one point, kissed my hand. But we did have a real conversation about stuff (including where she goes for free haircuts), and that was what I needed: a genuine interaction with another human being. As we parted, she gave me her blessing, which I commented later that night had to be worth at least a thousand blessings from a bishop or priest. “The Lord hears the cry of the poor,” the Psalmist assures us. If that’s the case, then her blessing carries an awful lot of weight. In return—as if an exchange of precious gifts—I continue to hold her in my prayers.

A couple weeks ago or three, I was feeling so down, that as I left work and walked to the train station, I couldn’t stop crying. (This actually happens more than I’d like to admit.) In typical San Francisco fashion, or—let’s give the natives the benefit of the doubt—perhaps in typical tourist fashion,  my fellow pedestrians only ever looked through or past me, even if I managed to give them a smile or nod. There were two exceptions. One beggar tried to engage me in his cheerful sales pitch, as if he didn’t notice I was crying. I have to confess, I said no that time. Maybe that was unfair, but it had nothing to do with him, really. I needed to keep moving in order to not completely lose it in public. But I did notice that he was putting on an act that had nothing to do with the person he was speaking to. Despite the fact that he was clearly addressing me, he too looked right through or past me. I don’t hold it against him, though. He’s got a tough gig.

But then as I reached the station, there was this other man—the same man who’s been out there begging or selling the Street Sheet for all eight years I’ve been out here, but whose name I don’t know. I don’t remember if we’ve ever formally introduced ourselves; I’m not good with names, so I might have forgotten. Anyway, a couple years ago, I had a small surplus of money (more than I needed), so I gave a lot of it to him. Every time I saw him, I gave him a $5, $10, or $20—whatever I had on me. We’d have brief conversations, enough so that I know he lives in an SRO and is out begging to cover his rent and some food, and that he’s been hospitalized a few times (sometimes that’s what he tells me after he’s been missing for a while).

But this night, the night where I couldn’t stop crying, he noticed. A look of genuine concern came over his face, and he asked, “Are you alright?” He didn’t ask me for money. He just asked if I was alright, God bless him. I only managed to say, “I will be,” and walk on into the station. But his response to me meant so much, and carried me through that night. When I saw him again a week or two later, I told him how much it had meant to me, that he had seen me, and expressed concern. He needed to know that. I felt like I’d been rude just walking on like I did, so I had to be sure to tell him. We then had a conversation about stuff, as you do—about my struggling with depression lately, about his trying to move to Oakland to get away from some of the problems in “the City.” He mentioned some people who were getting violent, and he was afraid of getting beaten up. I didn’t fully understand what he was trying to say about that, but I heard the same thing from another guy last night.

The man I came across last night looked terrible. He had small scabs all over his face and neck, and his hands were black with dirt. I made eye contact and smiled, as I do with everyone I pass in the street, and he asked me for money. I gave him some. He asked then if I could, perhaps, also buy him some food. He acknowledged that it was a strange thing to ask, and offered to give back the money I’d just given him if that was an issue, and asked if I was on my way to eat dinner. “No, I’m headed to Oakland,” I said. So he asked if he could walk with me a block or two. I said yes, and we continued in conversation. I realized then that he didn’t want me to just buy him food—he wanted some companionship.

So we chatted about all kinds of things for a couple of blocks, and then stood and chatted some more. At one point, he asked my name; I told him, and asked him his, but he didn’t tell me. He said he’d shake my hand, except he had “bugs”—I’m guessing fleas or lice or something. It was considerate of him to want to protect me from catching anything. And it explained all those little scabs, probably. But he too mentioned wanting to get away from people who were violent and causing trouble. I noticed he had a bruise on one side of his face. I didn’t ask questions, I just listened. He skipped around from topic to topic, and sometimes I couldn’t figure out how he got from point A to point B, but overall, I enjoyed our conversation. I think he did too.

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list of all the encounters of this sort that I’ve had. It’s just some recent ones. I could go on quite a bit, with stories from San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Detroit, Ann Arbor… I’ve had a few mildly bad encounters, such as a very early experience in Ann Arbor, in college, when I was chased by a guy until I found a shop to duck into, or another man on State Street who, when I didn’t buy incense sticks from him, yelled very grumpy things at me. I’ve also had amusing encounters. There’s the fact that twice—once in Detroit, and once in San Francisco—I’ve had panhandlers ask me why I’m so pigeon-toed! Or the fact that I’m often called “Sir” by women in particular. But I’ve also been mugged at gunpoint, and, frankly, sometimes I’ve given a beggar cash in gratitude that they’re not demanding it from me! And isn’t this what it’s all about, the gifts we freely give each other? God’s economy is a gift economy, where everything given is received in gratitude, and everyone is gift, giftee, and giver. “Freely you have received; freely give”—that’s another thing Jesus says in the Gospel.

But we’re stuck, for now, in an economy of human devising: consumer capitalism. We’re supposed to be stingy with our cash, except when purchasing gifts, perhaps. We’re supposed to want to possess things. But not everyone can participate. The rules of the game have to exclude some in order for others to get rich. I see far too many people out begging in what is supposed to be a “land of opportunity,” and far too many people refusing to share their little bit of the American Dream. The common rhetoric tends to accuse the poor of all sorts of things, from laziness to fraud to addiction, as if we would all spend our days begging if we could, but no, “we” have compunctions. The truth is that poverty is criminalized in this country, in so many ways. These folks I meet are working hard to get by in a society that is very hostile toward them.

So I give. It’s not much. It’s nowhere what they need. They’ll continue struggling, and making do, and so will I, except I have it a lot easier, however little I may have. They are poor; I’m working class. To me, it’s about solidarity, and trying, failing, and trying again to live according to the economy of the Kingdom of God which is “already and not yet” here among us.

Among us. Not inside each of us individuals, much less possessed by us, but among us, in the synapses that connect us. If we’re ever to live fully into God’s reign, we’ve got to stick together. But it costs so much.

A little Detroit in San Francisco

Despite my promise to return to my trip home, I had to write about this exhibition I just saw. So here’s a brief (who am I kidding, I can’t be brief) photoless post – you’ll have to follow the links to see pictures!

Tonight, I attended the opening of a great show at Meridian Gallery in San Francisco: “American Beauty,” works by photographer Philip Jarmain. The show features his photography of many ruined, abandoned, and decaying buildings in Detroit, but at least one that is currently under renovation (the Whitney Building). The prints are huge—4×6 and 5×7 feet, the exhibition description says. (I didn’t bring a tape measure to the gallery.) Jarmain, whose day job is in advertising photography, shot these images using a large-format camera (which is about all I can repeat, my knowledge of the technical aspects of photography being embarrassingly small for having lived with a photographer for 8 years).

I walked in just slightly late but still able to join a tour of the photos led by Detroiter and photographer Sean Doerr, who seems to have a pretty encyclopedic as well asintimate knowledge of these buildings. Jarmain was also present, and I was fortunate to be able to chat with both of them a bit after the tour.

Of course we all know by now that when photos of modern, and especially urban, ruins are being discussed, the potential charge of “ruin porn” has to be acknowledged. [I’ll wait while you groan a little. Actually, I’ll groan with you.] These images do not fit that category. They are contemplative, not voyeuristic. Thanks to their large size, and the skill with which Jarmain has treated color, light, and shadow, the buildings in the photographs assert their presence with a brilliance reminiscent of a religious icon. The comparison is apt. Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart writes that “beauty does not ‘essentialize’ (essences are supremely anaesthetic), but remains always at the surface…it is the ‘eloquence’ of being, which reveals being’s gratuity.” [David Bentley Hart. The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003), 141.] While Hart is not writing specifically on icons in that passage, the pride of place he gives to the surfaces of things is also key to the Orthodox tradition of icons [on this, see Bissera V. Pentcheva, “The Performative Icon,” The Art Bulletin, 88 (2006), 631-55).]

Even I didn’t anticipate quoting David Bentley Hart and referencing icons when I started writing this post. Hmm.

While the images remind me of some of the work of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre—who sought “to watch [the ruins] one very last time…wondering about the permanence of things”—Jarmain has photographed Detroit’s decaying buildings not as ruin qua ruin, but as architecture. As such, the compositions are staid, the subjects stately. Standing before them, the viewer is presented with rich details that would be easy to miss at the actual location unless one really looked, really made her or himself fully present and attentive to the site. These buildings are not the mere objects to which pornography of any type would reduce its subjects. They are Other, in the sense of Martin Buber‘s “Thou.” The viewer is easily encouraged by these photos to approach the subjects much like the photographer must have—without, or at least being willing to let go of, preconceptions or preconditions. And even though decaying or ruined buildings reveal something of their inner structure, in these photos you will not find “the skull beneath the skin,” but rather a woundedbut dignified, even graceful, work of architecture. The sort of superficial beauty Hart has commended.

Speaking to Wired, Jarmain emphasized his interest in the buildings themselves, and in their history, saying that his intent was to “document [them] carefully and with craft,” so that the viewer can enjoy their amazing architectural details. According to the Wired article, he “sees his work as optimistic and uplifting.” (Do read that article.)

Tomorrow (Sunday, 7 Sept 2013), his collaborator Sean Doerr will present a lecture—which, to be honest, I’m a little bitter I can’t attend—titled, “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus – Quoting from the Past to Question the Present.” Such an evocative title! It’s kinda a Detroit thing to forget the past, but in recent years, Detroiters—native and new—have been taking more of an interest in the city’s history. Questioning the present is a vital step toward building the future, and the past holds many clues. The built environment is a great place to start, because it was produced by, adapted by, and has housed so much history. It both reflects and shapes how people live and think.

I can’t help but hope that those “with eyes to see” the beauty and dignity in ruined buildings will bring a much-needed mode of thinking to the process of reinventing Detroit—or even the idea of a city in the 21st century. So go see these photos, online if you can’t go in person, and train your eyes. Take a moment to virtually dwell in these richly textured spaces, and let them impress something of themselves into your imagination.

Jarmain mentioned to me that his motivation is to get discussions going, and that for him, the photos are about story-telling. So in that spirit, please share your thoughts and stories in the comments below. What stories do you have about the places included in the show?

I learned, after exploring inside it in 1998, that my great-grandfather, a carpenter, worked on the Michigan Central Station. His sister was an organist. I know from family history that she played in various churches but also in the “movie palaces” around Grand Circus Park. As I looked at the photographs of theatres featured in this show, I couldn’t help but wonder…did she play there, this great-great aunt I never met?