Sep 062011

I sent the following letter to the Mayor and each of the Tampa City Council members as they are again revisiting and effort to ban panhandling in Tampa…because, you know, we can’t actually be asked to look on the poor in our midst.

You all once again take up the cause of the poor attempting to eke out modest subsistence in a world where jobs are few, the need is great, and many have reached a point of desperation. Charles Darwin wrote, “If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

I attend, and often teach, a wonderful adult Sunday School class at Palma Ceia United Methodist Church. We have recently finished a study on the parables right on the heels of a study by the Prophets. I’m struck by how often God and Jesus was forced to call out the Pharisees for how they treated the poor, and alas, we are guilty of the same in our time. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell says about poverty, “The root cause of poverty is social injustice and the bad government that abets it”

I have worked with the poor volunteering often in a homeless shelter in whatever city I lived. I know the argument is often that people make a choice; that they are just panhandling for drug money; that if we didn’t help them, they’d go find a job. I know these are some of the reasons people are on the street corners, but I assure you I also know the truth if far more nuanced. My roommate’s car broke down just last week right on Gandy Bridge. I took him my car and waited on the tow truck driver. As we talked while driving back home he talked about how glad he was to have just gotten this job. He rides a bicycle to and from work each day nine miles each way for a minimum wage job. He said had it not been for this job, he was close to having to go on a street corner to feed his wife and child. Best selling author Richard Bach wrote, “All we see of someone at any moment is a snapshot of their life, there in riches or poverty, in joy or despair. Snapshots don’t show the million decisions that led to that moment.” This person was neither a drug addict nor a lazy free-loader. This was a man reduced to have the last bit of pride beaten out of him so that he was about to be reduced to begging to feed a family.

I’ve heard the arguments about how these pan handlers pose a threat to safety. I live in South Tampa and often pass through the Gandy/Dale Mabry intersection. This is certainly one of the busier intersections in Tampa, and there are typically panhandlers on each median. I have never once seen them pose a hazard nor had them impede traffic. The unfortunate reality is that we simply don’t want to have to see this kind of poverty in our own neighborhood. We don’t want to be reminded of how many people are hurting, and how badly they hurt. We are simply afraid to look in the eyes of these people. It makes us uncomfortable, and we want to banish them so we no longer have to see what we have wrought.

We bare responsibility for the conditions we have created. We all wanted everything to be cheaper, so our manufacturing jobs are not sent off-shore. We want to make villains of the unions who have fought for a living wage and to keep jobs here, and so now we have the poor reduced to invading our sacred places…our streets and intersections, where we wish to float through with our windows up and air conditioning keeping us comfortable and secure. We don’t want to have to look into the face of poverty.

John Berger writes, “The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied…but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.” Mother Theresa best summed up what how this has happened. She says, “The trouble is that rich people, well-to-do people, very often don’t really know who the poor are; and that is why we can forgive them, for knowledge can only lead to love, and love to service. And so, if they are not touched by them, it’s because they do not know them.”

We claim to be a Christian nation, founded on and abiding by Christian principles. We are just embarking on another study on the Beatitudes. I’m sure you’re familiar with the beautiful passages in Matthew in which the gospel writer quotes Jesus tell the multitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The Greek word for “poor,” pto- choi, implies that they are not merely low on funds, but miserable, oppressed, humiliated. So the miserable, oppressed, and humiliated are blessed? You may not be as familiar with a similar set of Beatitudes in Luke. Here Luke has Jesus speaking primarily to the Apostles and he’s far more blunt and concise. He says, “Blessed are the poor.” And goes on to say, “But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to your that are full now, for you shall hunger. Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” Just like having to see the poor in our midst, these words ought to make us uncomfortable. We have not fulfilled our obligations to bring about peace and charity and hope to all people, and your actions are about to chop away even the last vestige of hope for some.

We are a nation born out of a desire for freedom. We are free to pursue happiness, but it was never promised by the founders. They never wrote a law or document that would forbid us having to see things that made us uncomfortable. That is not the American spirit nor do I find it to the Christian Spirit.

I heard one proposal from someone who said, “We’ll pass this, but then we must address the cause.” The basic sentiment is right, but it’s backwards. Do not take away some people’s last resort to feed their families before working to help them lift themselves. ““Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings” is how Nelson Mandella put it.

I am blessed in my life, but I’ve known some times of hardship. I’ve come home during periods of unemployment to find the power turned off, and I’ve known the humiliation of having to call a friend to borrow the money to get it back on. I am lucky to have never fallen as low as to have to panhandle, but I don’t think I can imagine the humility and humiliation it must create in someone. Don’t take away even that last little shred of hope.

I can look away if I don’t want to see the poor and down-trodden in our midst, or I can look them in the face and offer a helping hand. I know some of my dollars go to buy drugs and alcohol, but I also know some goes to buy food for a child, and I’m willing to leave that in God’s hand. He knows better than me who is worthy, and I beg you all to not make judgments of who should be allowed in our communities and who should be excluded. I think we are called to love as described by Saint Augustine, “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like” Let us hasten to poor and needy, and not try to shut them out of our vision.