It’s Boston hot.* With high humidity even mid-eighties feels uncomfortable. As it goes to the high eighties you’re dripping.
Give me the dry heat of Phoenix and 122 degrees any day. Really.
With the beginning of summer the visible homeless population has increased ten-fold. On my three-minute walk from subway to office I pass by 12 homeless people in varying stage of wakefulness. Some groggy eyed; others loud, ushering in the morning light with raucous interactions helped along by the strong smell of marijuana; three of them curled up, asleep in the doorways of nearby businesses.
It’s never easy. I don’t know much about the homeless, but I do know that there’s nothing simple about it. I do know that the issue is multifactoral and my response is shaped by the complexity of the issue.
I’ve discovered something in the past couple of years as I daily see the faces and slowly learn names of some of the homeless in this area. I’ve discovered that giving quarters doesn’t work well for me. Because a quarter is too easy.
What’s hard is stopping and offering coffee.
“No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” That’s hard for me.
“No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” means a couple of things. It means I’ll get to work later than I wanted. It means I may have the inconvenience of waiting in a line. It means I need to pay attention as I ask what kind of coffee — Cream? Sugar? Hot? Iced? It means they become a person. It means I have to engage the humanity of the person.
And a person is much harder to ignore than a body.
A body is just a body. But a person has a name, likes, dislikes, a personality shaped by life and their response to life, a temper, a mouth, language and more.
A person challenges me to see through the eyes of God, something that isn’t easy. A person is my equal. When I begin to see someone as a person, not a body, not a statistic, I move into uncomfortable and necessary relationship. It forces me to face my prejudice and privilege.
Seeing someone as a person reminds me that “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
So offering coffee is my new response. I don’t always offer it, and even when I offer it, it’s not always accepted. But overall, “No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” is teaching me far more than giving out quarters ever could.
What do you think? How do you, or would you, respond?
*I qualify heat by describing it as Boston hot as opposed to Djibouti hot which I’m learning defies imagination.