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Who is My Brother’s Keeper?

homeless-wal-martThis picture has been going viral lately.

It is easy to draw conclusions from it. You see a homeless man with a sign asking for money. Standing next to him is a Wal-Mart employee with a “Hiring” sign. The Wal-Mart employee is looking right at the homeless man (as if to invite him to apply), but the homeless man is not looking at the Wal-Mart employee.
When we come face-to-face with someone begging for money, the most human response is to feel empathy. However, we are afraid to engage with this person. We don’t want to get involved in his life. We have things to do and other plans for our time and money. It is also scary to let go and enter into the Gospel call to charity and love. Faced with all the pain in the world, if we started opening our hearts and responding to the needs of the world, how could we possibly have anything at all left for ourselves? We could easily give everything–including our very lives–on behalf of others. In response to this, we hunker down and find reasons to block them out.

Deep down, we know we are our brother’s keeper–but it scares us. We would have to change so much, and let go of so much, so we turn away.

This picture is designed to alleviate people from having empathy or a conscience to do anything about poverty. The message is: “He’s poor/homeless by his own choice, so we don’t have any responsibility to him whatsoever.”

This picture may reassure us that this man is homeless due to his own choices. It seems abundantly clear that opportunities to change his life situation are readily available–in this case, literally standing right next to him.

It means we don’t have to feel sympathy for the man asking for money. It means we can wash ourselves of any responsibility to do anything for this man or change the social conditions that may have brought him to the point in life where he is begging for money. We don’t have to change ourselves at all. We simply do not have to do anything.

The message is even more sinister than that: It suggests that it would be bad if we did help him. If so, we would somehow be interfering with his own spiritual development. He needs the satisfaction of a job well done in order to build up his self-confidence, some say. If we help him, we would be robbing him of the opportunity to meet his own needs. We could risk spiritually crippling him.

I’ve heard those arguments before, and I’m sure you have, too.

Like most things in life, the answers are not always so simple. We all know a family member who has managed to meander through life subsisting almost entirely off of handouts. Parents, siblings and neighbors feel sorry for that person and coddle him endlessly. What’s the result? The person ends up spoiled. He is angry and demanding. In a situation like that, it is easy to say that the charity is not helping him but rather only enabling his dependence. It does not create a happy person but rather a miserable, dependent person. We are doing things for him that he could and should do for himself. We end up feeling good about ourselves but doing no good at all.

Pictures like this one are designed to uphold the belief that efforts to help poor people are nothing more than a scam–the poor are poor either by their own choices or their own laziness, nothing more.

I have done a fair bit of charity and outreach work. Those who are taking advantage of the system are a small minority when they exist at all. The people who would benefit from “tough love” are few and far between. Stopping all charity efforts in order to “teach those people a lesson” would be to literally starve the vast majority who genuinely need that help in order to impact the few who would be better off without.

I can also tell you that in 100% of cases, if someone is poor and asking for help, they certainly need something. They may not need money or a handout, but they need something.

The Gospels call us to compassion. From the Greek, “compassion” literally means “to walk with.” In order to follow the Gospel call of compassion, we actually have to walk with people–not judge them from a distance. Then and only then we will be in a position to have the courage to decide if we are actually enabling their happiness or enabling their problems. Even then, any decision like that must be met with incredible trepidation, but at least we would have some basis for making that very serious decision to withhold charity from a person asking for it. Usually, it is best not to make judgments on a person at all, but in reality there are times when helping someone out can pull you into an unhealthy, draining codependent relationship, and you have to set a boundary and know when to opt out in those cases. You can’t possibly know that from looking at a picture about two men you know nothing about.

People who have strict opinions about refusing charity to the poor, refusing asylum to immigrants and refugees and refusing mercy to the imprisoned are almost always people who have very little direct experience with these people and the details of their lives. Walk with people, and get to know their lives and how they arrived at their present condition.

The Facebook page Kissing Fish quoted the following brilliant response to this picture:

Traci Schloss Brown, September 18

I’ve been waiting to comment on this picture that has been shared with the intent being humorous and probably spurred by some underlying frustration. Today is the day to serve up a little reality. Here are my questions for the Walmart guy:

1) Will you hire him if he doesn’t pass a background check or has committed a felony?
2) Will you provide him clothes to work in and when those get dirty will you help him get them washed or do you think that first paycheck will pay for an apartment, utilities, appliances, and laundry detergent?
3) Will you immediately pay for any healthcare including mental healthcare he needs? With medications?
4) Will you keep him as an employee if he has an exacerbation of PTSD, anxiety, schizophrenia, or anything else while at work?
5) Will you have someone watch his only earthly possessions while he is working so no one steals them?
6) Will you provide childcare or transportation or a bed for a good night’s sleep or food to sustain him while he works? (I could go on…)

Maybe the answers are “yes.” If so, kudos to you and I will be bringing a large number of friends to apply for every opening you have. If not, hmmmm…. the “just get a freaking job” argument is not so easy to quip, is it? Many of those who are homeless do work or want to work. Many can’t. It is truly not a simple fix. Judging them helps in no way at all! Some homeless hold signs… One of the reasons is because people don’t talk to them. (I am fully aware there are bogus people out there plying on sympathies who hold signs and don’t have legitimate needs…. I actually don’t advocate for giving cash to those “flying signs.”) My point is, “just get a damn job” is not simple. Please take some time to understand some of the most devastating underlying issues. These are people with feelings and worth. Please treat them like it!!

It is also worth adding that many Wal-Mart employees require public assistance to supplement their income. Wal-Mart may have available jobs, but those jobs do not provide for a living, even with full-time hours. It’s a sad day indeed when it’s better to be on the street begging than working at America’s largest employer.

NOTE: According to this website, the picture is a fake and the local affiliate of Wal-Mart does not know who the man is holding the “Now Hiring” sign.

What does it say when people have to fabricate a fake picture in order to prove a point?

Visit Frank Lesko’s website The Traveling Ecumenist

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