Paying Attention to the Poor

Last winter a news anchorwoman from one of the large television stations in the New York area traded in her expensive business suit for a bundle of rags. Convinced that in order to really understand the plight of the homeless you have to become one of them, she spent a week as a bag lady on the streets of New York City.

A team from the studio helped convert the newswoman into a bag lady. They made her face look bruised and careworn and covered her body in bulky, shapeless clothing. They gave her heavy gloves, appropriate for the frigid weather she would be enduring. And they left her out on the streets.

When the heavily promoted broadcasts finally began, they were eerily boring. Viewers were prepared for an adventure, for a great work of undercover reporting. What they got was tedium and hopelessness. The "bag lady" wandered the streets, mumbling into a tape recorder. No one paid attention to her, even when she mumbled. After all, homeless people are supposed to be a little crazy.

The woman talked about how cold she was, and how hungry. She wondered if she could find some safe shelter for the night. Over and over again, she discussed these same subjects-hunger, cold, shelter. It was not riveting drama for those of us on the other side of the TV screen. Warm and fed, we would have preferred insight, analysis, scathing indictments of our economic system—anything other than this weak and endless litany of need and neglect.

A climax of sorts came at the end of the second day when a passerby pushed some money into the woman's hand. She was so grateful that she wept as she described the incident into her concealed microphone: "God bless this person for helping me," she sobbed. "If there were any way to make all of you who are listening understand how much this gift meant to me after just two days out in the cold, you would never again pass a homeless person without reaching into your pocket and giving a gift of charity."

Out in TV land we squirmed in embarrassment. It is difficult to hear a normally sophisticated and successful news personality weep over a twenty-dollar bill. Besides, what about systemic evil? Didn't she realize how cheap and easy a gift that was, that it probably came from someone who spends more than that every day just for lunch?

The more we analyzed her reactions, the more questions we had. Was she too tired and cold to see the larger dimensions of the situation? Would a real street person react with such slavish gratitude, or did a short-term gift look larger to someone who planned to return to an expensive condominium at the end of the week?

Beneath all these questions, of course, lurked a disquieting feeling that somehow what she was saying had something to do with us. Were we uncomfortable with her emotion because in our last encounter with a homeless person we had failed to dig even two dollars out of our pockets?

Seeing the Poor

It struck me later that the newswoman offered a valuable lesson about giving and giving thanks. In a season when we celebrate a national day of Thanksgiving, I think it's a good lesson to ponder.

It should be easy to celebrate ITianksgiving in gratitude for the abundance we enjoy and simultaneously to pledge ourselves to be agents of abundance in the lives of others: out of our overflowing joy should be born, naturally, the desire to share. In reality, however, it is rarely so easy.

Some of us are burdened by a nagging guilt over how little we have shared, a guilt that disturbs our joy and turns it rapidly into defensiveness. A sense of injustice of fortune erodes our faith in providential care. The magnitude of the poverty around us, and the complexity of its causes, makes us feel powerless and small. We give because we feel guilty.

Those who aren't plagued by such nagging questions may be in danger of another pitfall—the complacency of abundance. It's easy to become complacent when we're comfortable, when the system is rigged so that we personally succeed in maintaining a degree of material comfort. It's easy to convince ourselves that die poor might have created their own misfortune and to pat ourselves on the back for the gifts we give to these nameless, faceless sufferers.

But such gifts, gifts that are born out of guilt or complacency, do not constitute true Christian giving or reflect true thanksgiving. Simone Weil, in Waiting on God, suggests that when charity is given without God's grace—even if the name of God is invoked—it is akin to a purchase: it buys the sufferer. Giving does not begin to reflect Christian love or thanksgiving, and does not begin to restore humanity to those who have been rejected and anonymous in poverty, until we learn to see them through God's eyes. Differences between giver and receiver are canceled when both know their dignity and person-hood rest in God's gaze.

Issues of journalistic skill aside, it was precisely the invisibility of the newswoman/bag lady that lent the flat and actionless quality to her broadcast. She had become one of the people who are passed by, whose physical miseries go unnoticed, who are never part of the action because they appear less than human. The twenty-dollar gift restored her sense of humanity: she had finally been seen.

If we pay careful attention to those in need, taking time to see them as individuals, we will be impelled toward action. Whether that action takes the form of an immediate act of charity or an effort to change the larger social conditions, or both, matters less than the initial act of paying attention.

Celebrating Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day is a traditional time for congregations to emphasize the ways in which they minister to the physical needs of others. Since Thanksgiving Day is a secular holiday and since charitable activity is widespread at Thanksgiving time, Christians can be encouraged to participate as fully as possible in these community activities. At the same time, the church can acknowledge in its worship the distinctive qualities that mark its attitude toward giving and thus move past guilt, despair, and complacency. An earnest desire to see the poor—to see them as persons of dignity rather than merely as objects for charity-—should be the church's prayer. Worship that upholds this desire will be worship that demands action.

The Lagree Baptist Church, located on Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard in New York City, celebrates Thanksgiving in a joint service with two other Harlem churches. Because their choir is magnificent, they often open up the church doors and let the music spill onto the city sidewalk.

The pastor of Lagree Church is thankful that the congregation has grown and flourished, and that many of his parishioners are finding financial stability in their lives. Each Thanksgiving the people of Lagree prepare baskets for the poor and sick in the congregation. Because it is not possible to live in or around Harlem without having a vivid sense of how bitter poverty can be, this emphasis on caring for one another grows out of a shared history of hard times.

To the movers and shakers of New York City this neighborhood is invisible. But for members of the congregation it is enough to see and be seen by one another: they know that they live in the grace of God's gaze.

Not too many blocks away, in Riverside Church, Thanksgiving offerings of food, brought forward by the children, help to stock the food pantry for the coming winter months. Fewer parishioners in this congregation know the bite of poverty directly, and many, through their success in careers, are plainly visible in the eyes of the world. It may be more difficult for these Christians to learn to pay attention. Members of Riverside and other wealthier churches need to do more than contribute money toward the relief of the immediate needs of the poor. They must learn to see the poor as people of dignity and worth—people who can participate in arenas from which they are usually barred.

Last year during Thanksgiving week Riverside Church played host to street people, giving them a place to meet, to organize, and to make decisions for themselves. The result was the founding of the National Homeless Union.

For members of Broadway Presbyterian Church, Thanksgiving offers two worship opportunities. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving people bring canned food and place it on the communion table during offertory. This food is distributed at a meal the church holds on Thanksgiving Day, so that the hungry can leave the festive meal with full stomachs and with provisions for the next few days as well.

On Thanksgiving Eve the congregation participates in an interreligious service. The offering gathered at this service is divided between local efforts for the poor and a specially chosen ministry elsewhere.

Since the church sponsors a year-round soup kitchen and since those who come to eat are encouraged to return and worship, the congregation is made up both of those who have education and money and of those whose lives have been deprived in a variety of ways. The pastor talks about the necessity of helping both groups of people to really see each other. He tries to teach his congregation how to allow those with strings of degrees after their names to be seen as people rather than bundles of accomplishments and how to convince those who visit the soup kitchen that if they worship with the congregation, they will be seen as other than just "the needy."

The pastor tells of a man who attended services for many months, hung over, unshaven, and dirty. After a time his life took a turn for the better, and he appeared in church so neat and tidy that people had to look twice before they recognized him. Still, the ushers continued their habit of bypassing him when the collection plate was passed. One Sunday the man rose during the doxology, walked to the front of the church, and added his offering to the plate. He was claiming his right to be seen.

That Is Enough

What these New York churches do to meet with and help the poor has an even greater effect than a twenty-dollar bill handed to a temporary bag lady. For these acts of thanksgiving and fellowship are done in Christ's name.

Thanksgiving worship should give congregations the opportunity to confess that they too live only by the grace of God, thai their material abundance does not set them ahead of others, and that their gifts of charity have on occasion been "purchases." It should include thanksgiving to God for the inner dignity he sees and creates in each person, and it should challenge us to see as God sees.

Thanksgiving prayers and rituals should situate us both in the human family and in the body of Christ, and should help us to bring the two together. Out of our desire to pay attention to those to whom we presume to show charity should arise action and encounter of some sort. As Weil says, "To know that this person who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do—that is enough. The rest follows of itself."


How blessed are those who thoughtfully
the poor and weak befriend.
The Lord delivers them from harm;
his blessings have no end.
The Lord will not surrender them
when enemies oppress;
in sickness he sustains their life,
and heals those in distress.

Psalm 41:1-3; vers. Bert Polman, 1983- © 1987, CRC. Publications.

Nancy Van Wyk Phillips is a doctoral student at Uniion Theological Seminary in New York.


Reformed Worship 5 © September 1987, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.