One of the joys for me living and working in downtown Bethesda has been knowing such a diverse group of people on a daily basis. From my wonderful Muslim neighbors to the greater Jewish community of Bethesda, to the many homeless friends I have made and the chances of running into folks from Church in Bethesda or other local groups I’m active with; any given day is filled with such deep relational potential.
It was not a surprise to chat with and share some mutual encouragement with a homeless brother of mine at La Madeleine this morning in Bethesda while having breakfast. It was however not expected that he would follow me out to the parking lot to give me a piece of jewelry, a very nice BORA watch and say, “God laid it on my heart to give this to you.”
Yes, I’m that guy. I’ll let a homeless friend give me a gift. I told him it wasn’t necessary to give me anything, but I did accept the gift when he insisted I have it. I have certainly never helped him, or my family done anything for him, with the intention that I or we would get anything from him in return. We help him because we love him. And he felt the tug to lay a gift on me for the same reason. He said that he felt it was right to give me something for all I do and try to do for him. He also explained that he has connections to get jewelry, so I shouldn’t worry about it setting him back too much. <insert my nervous chuckle here>
I first experienced this kind of humbling when I lived in Kenya way back in 1989 and 1990, and later in Tanzania… people would give us gifts of food and drink when we visited their villages and homes, gifts they could not always afford. We would be presented with a soda, a luxury they often would never have bought themselves. And we learned not to say no to the gifts that were presented to us. It is affirming of a person’s dignity and an act of gratefulness to receive a gift well.
I’m not saying I would ever allow a person to do injury to themselves or their family for the sake of my comfort, but I am willing to be humble enough to receive a gift, even when it makes me feel kinda funny to do so. I think it’s part of being a whole healthy person that one gives and receives. Giving a gift is a great feeling. It empowers the one doing the giving. Giving enriches the gifter as much as the gifted. Giving is healthy. And the dignity of my friend is important to me, so I would never want to injure him by saying no to such a proffered gift.
It’s too easy to judge our homeless brothers and sisters as “other” and not “us.” It’s too easy to forget that they were born with the same factory wire harness that we were, and though we may have walked diverse roads, we are still so deeply similar and connected. My heart hurts when I see someone post a meme on Facebook or hear them make a comment about things like homeless people who have cell phones not having the right priorities in life. You don’t want to be connected with the world? With support structures? With friends?
Keeping a cell phone going is often a major ordeal for a homeless person who has to prepay for minutes and has no “grace period” when cash is short. You ever paid your cell phone bill late? I think mine is late right now. A cell phone is a “little home” when you have no street address, land line or contant place to belong. Homeless or not, we yearn to participate with life, with those around us. I don’t bat an eye at a homeless person having a cell phone, an iPod, or even a notebook computer. Good grief, considering their anxieties and stresses, why would I begrudge a homeless friend a little chance to enjoy life? Why would I begrudge him or her the chance to joyfully give a gift?
At the end of the day I think I accepted a gift from my friend today for two reasons: 1) giving gifts it is way that people share life and love, and he and I are on a two-way street that I would never want to trade for a one-way street where I’m always the giver and he’s always the taker, and 2) receiving a gift from him renews my hope. I hope that there is good stuff in store for my brother. I trust that there is good stuff in store for him. And as I continue to pray and share life with him, his giving a gift bolsters my excitement and expectation that he is going to be on a good road, seeing better days and knowing joy on joy on joy. Oh God, let it be so.