Escalating Inequality & "The Man in the Parking Lot"

"Homeless Can You Help"

A few weeks ago, we in the office received emails from a few congregants about a man in our parking lot on Sunday mornings who was asking for money. In our staff meeting we discussed various ways to respond to the situation. It turned out that he didn’t return and we didn’t feel a need to take any particular action. But, that event, his appearing here, opened a floodgate of questions in my own mind about how best to respond. And, it felt like a golden opportunity for us here. You have to laugh at the over-developed sense of irony the world has… We have been asked by the UUA to make a year-long study of the issue of “escalating inequality”. “Escalating inequality” walked right into our church and asked us what we were going to do about it. The “Man in the Parking Lot” wasn’t waiting around for an adult forum to come to conclusions about a response. He wasn’t interested in a discussion group. He didn’t ask us to host a conference on the subject. He asked us for money… and many of us didn’t quite know how best to respond.

When he appeared, the congregants who wrote to us about it, all mentioned that they had handed him some money. This seems good to me. I think that I, too would have given the man some money. Some small amount of money. And, I now see that in some ways that would have made the situation “go away” for me in some way. I give him some money and then I basically don’t much have to think too much more about him. I did what I could. But, then I thought, NO, what I should do would be to talk with him. To find out a bit more about his story. Perhaps invite him in for coffee and see if there are other ways this congregation could “help” him. But then I thought, NO, he is not here to educate me about his situation or about poverty or to tell his story. He is here because he says he wants $10 for gas. And who am I to presume he wants our “help” anyway? So then I thought – well, maybe I can at least say hello to him and tell him my name if I see him the next time – and just see where that goes. I want him to know that I see him as a person. I don’t know if he wants that, but I presume it’s safe to say that we all want to be seen in one way or another. I know for sure that it would not feel good to me if I were this man when people just avert their eyes and walk around me… Or, maybe that would be OK, maybe that’s OK with him too. How do I know? I realized, in short, how very little I know about this man – and then I realized how very many assumptions I made about him. So, here goes – I am not proud of these assumptions, but they all played into my thinking. I assumed; that he is poor, he is probably from Pontiac, he is probably homeless, he is probably a minority, he is probably lying about what he wants the money for, he maybe unwilling to work, he is uninformed about available social services, he may be an addict or alcoholic, if I give him money, he’ll just become dependent on hand-outs and that is not good, if I give him $5 he’ll come back for more. I assumed he needs a “longer term solution” to his “problem”… etc.etc.. From people around the church I also heard these assumptions; he may be physically threatening, he’ll bring his friends here if they find out we are giving out money, he should be relying on social service agencies that are set up to do this kind of work, not on us, the police should deal with this man etc.etc. True or not, A LOT of assumptions jumped into place here and they affected how I defined the issue.

Then I began to wonder “What if…” What if the man had been a well-dressed white man would I have felt differently? Would my assumptions have been different? What about if it was a woman? What about if it had been a person in a wheelchair asking for money? What about if it was someone who didn’t speak very good English? What if it was one of our own members who needed money for rent? Oh my…. This man had brought the whole world into our parking lot and into my head. And, I didn’t like the kinds of questions and assumptions that I saw forming inside me.

Then, I happened to read a couple of sentences in a flyer about a UU workshop about “hospitality”. It defined Hospitality as a practice that can heal our alienation from others and from the “other” we carry within.” That sentence just jumped off the page at me. The “other” I carry within.

Who is the “other” I carry within me that I perhaps project onto TMITPL? One who is needy. One who lacks. One who is dependent on others. One who sometimes feels she does not have enough. One who is shamed. One who sometimes feels like an outsider. All of those characters live or have lived in me at one time or another. It is difficult to love the “needy” part of myself. The part of me that needs reassurance, applause, appreciation, things. The little girl in me who is whiny, chronically dissatisfied… all those inner characters that are hard to welcome. When they show up in me, I don’t want to give them a dime. I want to look the other way and pretend I don’t see them. I do not have much charity towards the one in me who extends a hand and asks for more, more, more. I want to chastise that little me, tell her to grow up, to be satisfied with what she has, to be grateful --- the part of me that does not accept myself is the same part of me that judges and does not accept the MITPL.

After I got over all that self examination, I began to see my own drive to SOLVE THE PROBLEM. I identified the “problem” as the man’s need for money. I wanted to come up with all sorts of solutions to his need for money. And, then a friend of mine suggested that I not rush too quickly to find solutions. To just let the issue exist for a while within me. There is no one size fits all perfect response to the situation. It is more complicated than that. The need to solve the man’s problem, may be my own need to be DONE with it. To make the problem go away. If we could come up with the perfect or even imperfect solution, we would not have to ask the even bigger questions – what kind of society do we live in that produces people who have to beg for money while others live in mansions… And, I began to see further that my desire for a solution was a solution for the MAN – not for me, not for us here at church.

So, then I began to see that one aspect of the issue of TMITPL as well as the issue of “escalating inequality” asks, -- what kind of person do I want to be? What kind of church do we want to be? How do we see ourselves and how would we like to be seen in terms of responding to those in our world who have needs?

I remember a previous Executive Director of our UUA district, Jerry Wright. Part of his job was to untangle difficulties in UU churches in our district. Much of what he dealt with was money issues, as you can imagine. Eventually Jerry quit his job and left UUism to found his own church. He called it the “Church of the Generous Spirit”. He determined that in his congregation, folks would be told up front that one of the responsibilities of being a part of the congregation was to tithe... 10% of your income to the church. He wanted a church that did not have to struggle with money. A church that saw one of it’s primary aspects as being “generous” in all respects. I don’t know what actually happened to that church – but I do know that he did start it. And, it got me to thinking – thinking WAY outside the box! What if…

What if as well as expanding our entrance and our new building – what if we also expanded our outreach, our hearts, our sense of generosity? One of the concerns expressed by a couple of people here about TMITPL was that if we begin giving him money, he will tell all his friends and we might have a parking lot full of people asking for money. Then I got to thinking, maybe if we were the Church of the Generous Spirit, we would throw a picnic every Sunday and invite everybody to come! We’d have a parking lot of diverse people having fun, eating hot dogs, and getting to know each other. People driving by the church might say “WOW! Look at that church and look at their diversity!” Maybe that would morph into us providing a regular meal every week for whoever needs or wants it… Just because we wanted to operate out of generosity.

There is a church in Pontiac that does exactly that – a community meal every week. Free to whoever shows up, no questions asked. Another church that I know of in Pontiac puts out two card tables on the front lawn and someone in the church goes to the day old bakery every day and gets whatever bread they are willing to sell cheap or donate. They put the bread on the card table for whoever is passing by and wants or needs it. That is a Church with a Generous Spirit. That probably wouldn’t work for us here, but maybe we could partner with a church who does something like that in Pontiac and we could be part of that generosity too.

In short what I have learned about myself in contemplating this whole scenario which TMITPL offered me – is that I LIKE TO BE GENEROUS. I like the feeling it gives me. I want to WANT to be generous. I want to belong to a “Church of the Generous Spirit”. I want to care rather than to fear. I want to be part of a church that expands its entry way and its heart at the same time. I don’t know the best way for us to do that. There are lots and lots of viable options for us to consider. .. both solutions for the MITPL and solutions for ourselves. But, I know that the bottom line for me – is I want to be part of a serious discussion about how we can define and then lean towards the kind of congregation we want to be.. And then I want to be part of a church where that discussion leads us to take ACTION – to BE the kind of church we want to be … a church with a new way to enter – one with lots of light, lots of accessibility and a strong message of generosity and love.

In his eulogy for Pastor Clementa Pinkney who was killed in the South Carolina Church a few weeks ago, President Obama said,

“The AME Church doesn’t make the distinction between public service and church service. “Our calling is not just in the walls of the congregation but within the community where our congregation resides.” Our faith demands deeds not just words…. To put faith in action is about more than our individual salvation but is about our collective salvation. It is not a call for isolated charity but a call for a just society.

We don’t’ need more talk, or more symbolic gestures without a systemic change. “Justice grows out of the recognition of ourselves in each other.” “An open heart is more important than an open mind.”

In short, what I learned about myself is that more than answers, more than charity, I need to find my own compassion. Compassion validates human worth, compassion listens, compassions sees each person as valuable. If we can first open our heart as President Obama says, we might trust that it will direct our actions in a compassionate way.

I leave you with some questions that have formed in me… Can we be the Church of the open heart? Can we be the Church of the Generous Spirit? Can we open our hearts as well as our entryway? Can we learn to recognize ourselves in each other?

I invite you to just let some silence lie around those important questions now…

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