Approaching the Homeless as Icons of Christ or as Problems to be Fixed

Sometime last Fall, my wife and I went to see a movie. I cannot recall the film’s title, which might speak to how forgettable it was. The events that transpired after we left the theater however, left a lasting impression in my mind. As we walked toward our car which we left in a grocery store parking lot, we encountered a couple, a man and women in their mid to late forties, asking passers-by for help acquiring the items on their grocery list. The two were homeless, which I gathered from the repeated petition offered to multitudes of disinterested strangers: “Will you help the homeless this evening?” This man and woman were “the homeless,” and I was the “not-homeless.” As the couple approached us, I directed my attention toward the man, a tall, thin figure with tired eyes, and answered his question timidly, “I might be able to. What do you need?” Before he could answer, his companion interjected, “oh no, he doesn’t want to help us.” She obviously picked up on the poorly masked hesitation in my voice. I was used to being asked for money while walking the streets of Kansas City and had prepared myself to resist a sob story that culminated in asking me for whatever spare change I had in my pocket.

The man gestured for his partner to be quiet and went on to explain to me that they were indeed homeless and that they had two kids. He explained that his family hadn’t eaten properly for about a day and hadn’t bathed for longer. He told me that if I could just get them something to eat, and maybe some toothpaste, it would help them out a lot. As he was explaining their situation, the woman watched me skeptically. I was unnerved by her cynicism, but I was even more shaken by the fact that she had called me on my feigned generosity. So, in an effort to prove to her (and perhaps to myself) that I was actually a really caring person, I entered the grocery store, bought a couple boxes of Cliff bars, a tube of toothpaste and a pack of toilet paper, and presented the couple with my offering. The man looked almost surprised that I had actually come back with something and that I hadn’t just pretended like I was going into the grocery story only to find a covert way back to my vehicle. He thanked me with a smile and then timidly asked me if I wouldn’t mind also buying them some soap. In my eagerness to yet again prove my kindness, I bolted for the grocery store doors before the man could finish his sentence. As I entered the store, the woman shouted after me to pick up some soda for the kids, if I could. This last request gave me cause to stop momentarily, but moments later, I emerged with a shopping bag containing two bars of soap and a six pack of orange soda under my arm. As I presented the couple with my second round of gifts however, I was met with looks of disappointment. The couple preferred a two-liter bottle to the six pack and liquid body wash to the bars of soap. I became immediately embarrassed and slightly offended. Why were they being overly demanding and weirdly specific about the things I purchased for them out of the kindness of my heart? In my frustration, I quickly ended our interaction and hurried off to my car explaining that “I had to be somewhere.”

As my wife and I drove away from the parking lot, I reflected on my reaction to the couple’s requests. Then I remembered, from an experience traveling without a guaranteed place to stay, that it was ideal to minimize the clutter I had to carry with me. Perhaps the couple preferred the two liter bottle because it was less unwieldy than six loose cans. Maybe they didn’t want bars of soap because they probably didn’t have a personal bathroom. It’s much easier to carry around a bottle of liquid body wash that has a lid and can be easily stored. It was well into the evening by the time we had encountered the couple. They had likely been asking for help most of the afternoon and had probably been met with mostly cold shoulders and aggressive rejections. Perhaps they weren’t being overly-demanding, they may have just wanted to get what they actually needed when I offered to help.

Most people know what they need, and if they don’t, why would I make assumptions? Christ himself, who by all accounts is the most qualified person to make such judgments, served people first by listening to them. In Matthew 20, when Jesus healed two blind men that were being silenced by the crowd, He listened to them. He ignored the mob and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” When Jesus met a Samaritan woman in John 4, he first asked her for a drink of water and offered her living water while unpacking her life story. In my interaction with the homeless couple, I didn’t listen to them. I was too distracted by how their need reflected on me and my virtue. I didn’t approach them as people, but as problems to be fixed.

The overarching value that drives the work of RS is veneration–the act of honoring and reverencing everyone as living icons of Christ. Catholic theologian and philosopher Jean Luc Marion makes a profound distinction between icons and idols. He says, “Whereas the idol results from the gaze that aims at it, the icon summons sight in letting the visible be saturated little by little with the invisible” (God Without Being, 19). In other words, idols are static images created by us; icons are persons that bear the presence of God. Idols reflect the image of the self, icons reflect the image of God. I created idols out of the homeless couple when I only saw them as objects of my philanthropy instead of the very presence of Christ.

Regrettably, I don’t remember the names of the couple I met last Fall. At the time, they existed only as members of a category: the homeless, and I made homeless idols from them. I could only hear and see what I wanted to hear and see. But veneration requires that I listen. It requires humility and the admission that I don’t actually know all the facts. It requires patience and an awareness that a person knows their own story better than I do.

I am grateful for what I learned about myself through interacting with this couple. They were a gift to me and a catalyst for a change of heart and attitude within me. My desire is to be able to cast aside the idols of my own insecurity and learn to really venerate the living icons around me.

Article by Jonathan Reavis.