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Posts Tagged ‘hunger’

It was just a sandwich. Nothing special, really. Roast beef, havarti, chive mayonnaise, and a few limp leaves of romaine on a white roll. So, in terms of helping the homeless, I suppose it wasn’t much. But it was something my daughter felt strongly about doing, so we did it. We tried anyway.

I should say up front that my town doesn’t have much of a homeless problem. Or if it does, it’s pretty invisible. There used to be a couple of men that you’d see pretty regularly — at the library, shuffling past downtown storefronts, sitting on benches at odd hours. When one of them died not long ago, it was a news item. Turns out he had a wife, a daughter, and even a home. The narrative couldn’t account for why he turned away from all those comforts to live on the streets. Now that he’s passed, there’s only one man that we see with any regularity, and it was the sight of him sitting alone inside a local mall last evening, wrapped in tattered blankets and surrounded by a couple of bulging canvas bags, that triggered my daughter’s desire to help.

We’d passed him on the way out of the gym, but she didn’t say anything until a few minutes later while we were at the grocery store stocking up of a holiday party we’re planning.

“I feel really sorry for him,” she says as we browse the cheese case.

“Who?” I ask.

“That man at the mall. The homeless one.”

“Yeah, it’s sad.”

“Would it be okay if we bought some dinner for him? A sandwich or something?”

A simple question, really. And an honorable impulse. But still …

“I don’t know, honey…” My voice trails off here, and I busy myself looking over the party platters of perfectly cubed cheese and artfully rolled salami.

The shameful truth is that this simple suggestion, this single desire to help in some small way, brings me face to face with my own carefully cultivated attitude, an attitude that allows me to see this same man nearly every day and do nothing. It’s not indifference, and it’s not a lack of compassion. It’s that peculiar capacity we all have developed to see need and turn away, to prevent that need from registering in a way that would spur us to immediate action.

Of course none of this occurs to me at the grocery store. What I do there is wrap my arm around my daughter’s shoulder and walk with over to the deli where we pick out the roast beef sub. We pay for it along with the rest of the groceries and walk the half-block through the bitter cold back down to the mall.

She wants me to give it to him, so I take the sack from her hands. He sees me coming and begins waving me off and muttering. I approach, but a bit more slowly.

“It’s just a sandwich,” I say, extending the sack forward, like a peace offering.

With one hand, he clutches his blanket closer around his neck, and with the other, pulls one of his canvas sacks closer. His voice is deep and gruff, and loud enough for my daughter, standing back a few feet, to hear.

“Go away.”

Maybe I should have left it there. Maybe I should have insisted that he take it. Maybe I should have asked him if he needing anything else. I don’t do any of these things. Instead, I wish him a merry Christmas and turn away.

I saw him again this morning at 5:00 as I got to the gym, hurrying through the parking lot with his odd rolling gait, heading for the warmth of the mall. I didn’t say anything to him, and I still don’t know what to say to my daughter.

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Hey, brother, can you spare a dime? Or a dollar? How about $10,000? Can you imagine the audacity of asking for money in this kind of economic climate? What kind of person would do that?

Well, a pretty normal person, as it turns out.

Just to be clear — I work for a BIG organization that raises money. BIG money, in fact. So while the money coming in will definitely slow down, we’ll probably keep the lights on. I’m adjusting our messages a bit to be more sensitive to the context of the times, but by and large, my job won’t change. I stay busy defining what gets said, not saying it. And that keeps me a little insulated from the cold reality of a deepening recession.

I had lunch yesterday with a bunch of folks who don’t have that luxury. They are front-line fundraisers.¬† Many of them bear the sole responsibility for raising money for their organizations, and many of those organizations depend on charitable giving for operating budgets — the money that keeps the lights burning, that keeps the doors open, that keeps the much-needed services coming. And, no surprise, the people who are responsible for finding and securing those gifts are having a much harder time of it.

Here’s the irony: the forces that are causing so many donors to keep a tighter grasp on their purse strings are the same forces that are increasing the need for the crucial services many of these fundraisers make possible. I’m talking Red Cross, children’s health programs, job training, and more. And these folks — the normal hardworking folks I had lunch with today — are forced to work within this double bind — increased need and diminishing resources.

I’ll be blunt. I’m convinced that now, perhaps more than any other time in my lifetime, philanthropy matters. And not just the sort that makes the headlines. Not just the philanthropy that names buildings or creates endowments. It’s the philanthropy that happens when you realize that it’s not just something you do when you think you’re able. It’s something you do because you realize that you are pretty much always able.

That’s the sort of deeper obligation to one another — to strangers, even — that we’re often too busy to feel, let alone honor. And that’s the sort of obligation that lifts us all — both those who have and those who don’t. And that’s the sort of obligation that my lunch mates are hoping folks will feel, and feel soon.

Think about those who would benefit from¬† a gift from you — those at your alma mater, or your local food pantry, or a women’s shelter, or a job training program or a … there’s no end of possibilities.

So how about it, brother (or sister)? Can you spare a dime?

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You know my town, right? At least you know one like it, don’t you? Population right around 40,000. Nice little downtown filled with a pretty fair number of mom and pop shops and an equally (un?)fair number of empty storefronts. Big box stores and lifestyle malls creeping up around the fringes. Solid middle class population. You know the town I mean?

If you do, then maybe you’d be as surprised as I was to see a man standing on a corner near the grocery store just a block or so from my office holding up a hand-lettered cardboard sign that said “No Food.”

No food? Huh? That’s not really the kind of thing that happens in these kind of towns, is it? For a moment, I felt this dread that something terrible — something that’s only been happening on the fringes of my world — had finally arrived. I began to see him as a sort of omen of what’s surely to come.

Am I wrong? I hope so, but it’s getting harder and harder to remain optimistic these days. Every day, we’re all barraged by the bleak news — jobs lost, businesses in danger or gone under, credit markets still in chaos. And yet …

Most everyone I know gets up and goes to work every morning. Most everyone I know is paying their bills, raising their kids, finding ways to get by. That’s what my town is like … so far.

I spoke to a friend who sells cars today. His dealership has already laid off more than fifty people, and will quite likely lay off more before it’s all said and done. And, since mom and pop shops everywhere have a hard time competing with always-low-prices-always-open big box stores, towns like ours have grown accustomed to a few empty storefronts downtown. But in just the last week, two national chains — one a restaurant, one a department store — announced that they can no longer afford to do business here.

But what’s even more telling than what is is what people believe could be. Rumors have already begun taking hold in the hallways of the office buildings, in the aisles of the grocery store, in the fellowship halls of churches. This store is closing. That company is going belly-up. That division of the university — you know, the one out by the airport — is cutting half its workforce.

These rumors have no corroboration and no identifiable source, and yet, in this climate, we feel compelled to ask more questions, to see if we can confirm or refute them. And so we ask around. We discuss it with others, and they discuss it with others and so on and so on until these dark rumors swirl around our town just like the wind that rushes down from Brush Mountain, bringing cold northern air, and forcing the man on the corner to clutch his jacket more tightly around his neck with one hand while his hand-lettered sign bends and buckles in the other.

You know my town, right?

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