Easter morning began with me sipping coffee on the porch next to my host’s pool, watching a hawk sweep over a California canyon lush with spring. When she was ready for church, I rode shotgun, felt the swerves as she skimmed Mission Ridge. Between the million-dollar homes, the Pacific Ocean glittered in the morning sun, the Channel Islands floating misty on the horizon.
If this wasn’t paradise, it was the closest I was going to come to it. But then, I think that a lot when I’m out in Santa Barbara. Other people must think it, too: One of the more affluent cities in Southern California, Santa Barbara boasts more than it share of movie stars and other individuals of affluence. But as I was about to be reminded, that’s only one side of life in this seemingly idyllic community.
We parked next to the expansive gardens across from the Unitarian Society. While my host’s choir duties required her to sing in two services, it was my privilege as a singing-impaired visitor to only attend one. So while she rushed into the Spanish-style sanctuary, I shouldered my laptop bag and moseyed down State Street to my favorite coffee shop.
This was the main drag of up-scale shops and restaurants, galleries and cafes, but this early on an Easter morning, the hustle and bustle of commerce had yet to start. A delicious calm hung over the avenue. Here and there workers hosed the red tile sidewalks that appeared clean enough to start with. A few folks drifted in and out of breakfast joints. Some were dining, some were on their way somewhere – and some were doing neither.
Case in a point: A slender, wrinkled man on a bench, his backpack beside him as he listened to a fortyish earth mother of a woman, wearing a flowing skirt, a vest over her white peasant blouse. Long curly hair, no makeup, a lovely kindness to her face. Vaguely hippy-ish.
“Yeah, the way I dress, people sometimes I think I’m homeless, but I’m not!” she said, laughing at the thought – and the man on the bench, who apparently was homeless, laughed along with her.
As I swept through the rest of a crowded Easter social calendar, I didn’t mention the scene to a single person – nor have I since. But this singularly un-dramatic scene has stuck with me for years, for reasons I still don’t completely understand. Much of my marveling must lie in the matter-of-factness of the woman’s mirth, her utter lack of self-consciousness. She didn’t fumble self-consciously to avoid the topic of the other person’s homelessness; she didn’t ignore the reality both people knew all too well. I would be so worried about saying the wrong thing, I might not speak to him at all –an act probably worse than anything I actually would say.
On a deeper level, though, her relaxed dialogue seemed to imply a deeper attitude about homelessness – an utter lack of shame and stigma, of being embarrassed for the person’s economic situation. It suggested someone who has not only suspended the impulse to judge, but had eradicated it entirely. Along with, perhaps, the fear of engaging the homeless: Fear of not only danger, but fear of being asked for more than she could give – or of giving with a sense of futility that a few dollars won’t fix the person’s problems. Setting such obstacles aside, knowingly or unknowingly, she was rising to the challenge set forth by Rev. Sam Wells in one of my previous blog entries – the challenge to set aside our need to solve problems for people (often at a safe distance from said people) and get down to the business of simply being with them, right here, right now.
I know, I know. This is a whole lot of philosophizing to project upon a few minutes of overheard conversation, and it probably says less about the person being projected upon than the person doing the projecting.
Which is, of course, me.
Obviously I feel some of the social awkwardness, with its attached shame and guilt, myself. On a conscious level, I see the lives of people as being formed largely by social circumstance, a complex interplay of determinisms, from family life and biological predispositions to economic class and just plain bad luck. I don’t judge people I see working the street corners. But I also fail to engage them, which risks conveying a kind of judgment, intended or not.
This point was clearly addressed two weeks ago, when my Honors 200 students paid a visit to the Homeless Outreach and Advocacy Project at 162 Chandler St. here in Worcester, Massachusetts. There they met with not only HOAP’s extraordinary, dedicated and generous staff, but also clients who had experienced homelessness, in some cases for decades. One client likened himself and others on the streets to being “slugs that hide during the day”, leaving only a trail to suggest their existence. “You have to understand that in our minds, you are the better and we are the worse.” That assumption so governed his daily interactions, only in recent times, since he’s found housing, has he realized to degree to which it shaped his social reality.
A week later, I found a Facebook post that made me connect in a flash the man from HOAP to that distant morning back in Santa Barbara. A friend there has dedicated her life to helping the homeless through the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, a few blocks off East Beach. Jill posted a link to a powerful article by Suzanne Beachy – a piece that was haunting for both its heartbreak and its heroism. Jill’s Facebook note with the link stated simply, “Beautifully written and moving. Please read this if you feel uneasy talking to a homeless person.”
Published on-line in Mad in America: Science, Psychiatry, and Community, the essay “Lost and Found in Santa Barbara” recounts the story of how Beachy’s son wound up homeless in Santa Barbara, where one day he was killed by the train just off East Beach, not too far from the mission where my friend works. About a year later, the writer journeys from her home in Ohio to Santa Barbara, on what would have been her son Jake’s 29th birthday.
From a hotel employee and caseworkers to people on the street, strangers greeted Beachy with warmth and compassion, sharing their own stories. One man, a witness to her son’s death, took her to the tracks, showed her where her son’s body landed, and shared with her something he’s written later that day, as he was processing the shock of what he just saw. Beachy recounts: “The words that soothed my soul read, ‘ . . . this didn’t seem like a suicide to me. It looked like the guy was unaware that the train was coming.’”
But that wasn’t enough, not nearly, for her on this trip. “As someone who is always seeking foundational truth, I try to imagine how God views homeless people. Instead of seeing a ‘homeless problem’ as many of us would describe that situation, I think he would see homeless people the same way he sees all of us – a bunch of lost sheep in need of a shepherd. … Like the kind people who reached out to me, am I, in turn, speaking hope into the hearts of the hurting or lost?”
So she walked the same Santa Barbara streets I walked – but with a very different attitude toward the homeless. As she approached them, she confessed to feeling the same psychological obstacles as most of us: “ ‘Were they a menace?’ I wondered. I felt afraid of them and somewhat repulsed. But my son had been one of them less than a year before, and HE was not scary, dangerous, or repulsive. He had been just a beautiful, lost, mess. I decided I should try to get to know some of these homeless ones, even though I did not really want to. Once again, I had to push through dread and fear.”
In the process, she did do some things for people – such as bringing lunch – but she took the time to be with them first, asking permission to bring the food. That night,
she would run into one of her new homeless acquaintances a second time – near the spot where her son had died.
What happened next? For that, you’ll have to go to her beautiful and brilliant essay, which deserves to be read directly, unfiltered. I guarantee you’ll find it well worth your time, for both its content and its form.
Instead, I’ll simply share the quote she took herself from Desmond Tutu, in which he defines “ubuntu.”
As Beachy quotes Tutu, ubuntu “. . . speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole.”
When it comes to ubuntu, well, I’m still working on it. But two women strolling the streets of Santa Barbara have shown me what ubuntu might look like – as have the homeless who returned their gestures in kind.