Lately, I've been thinking about homelessness a lot because we've recently moved to Chicago. There are homeless people everywhere. I lived in Detroit for sixty years and encountered my share of beggars there. But we didn't walk the streets much in "the motor city." It was all about cars and driving. You'd most likely meet a homeless person as you slowed to stop on a freeway exit ramp -- or after you parked outside a downtown stadium.
On the other hand, in "the windy city," we walk all the time. So we're frequently face to face with those living on the streets. It's terribly sad to see someone shaking from disease, hunger or withdrawal. You can't possibly help everyone, but it hurts to stroll past neighbors like they are so many fire hydrants or street signs.
Recently, my wife, Ellen, and I were pushing our two-year-old granddaughter, Quinn, in a stroller when a homeless guy approached us. "Can you please give me some money so I can eat," he begged. Instantly, many thoughts raced through my mind. "What do we do with Quinn to keep her safe? Is this guy going to except our excuse and let us pass? I hope he doesn't do something bad."
"I'll help you!" said a young woman who suddenly stepped up to the beggar.
"Really?" he cried with surprise.
"Sure," she said with a smile. "I've got to buy some groceries; come inside and I'll get you something to eat."
And off they went into the nearby store. The young man would not go hungry tonight.
I felt badly that I hadn't thought to make him the same offer. I hadn't even noticed we were passing the grocery. I was too busy thinking the worst of this stranger.
Instead of judging him, I should have thought about the simplest way to help him solve his problem. There was an immediately available, safe solution inside the grocery. Or I could have allowed Ellen to push the stroller while I stopped to talk to the man. Or I might have promised to return in ten minutes after taking our granddaughter home.
But I didn't. I was busy thinking too hard about the wrong things.
St. Teresa of Calcutta, Mother Teresa, has some amazing advice from the trenches in the war on poverty. In her book, "A Simple Path," the late Nobel laureate encourages us to take action when we see problems and not think too hard about grand solutions. Or wait for the government, social workers or other programs to solve big issues.
"In the West we have a tendency to be profit-oriented, where everything is measured according to results,"she said in "A Simple Path."
"In the East ... I find that people are more content to just be. The success of love is in the loving -- it is not in the result of loving."
Her call is for love in action. For love through service. Seeing needs of individuals and doing something about them. Not judging. Not measuring the causes of social problems and weighing the results of solutions. It's not about counting heads; what counts is the amount of compassion in our hearts.
The woman who volunteered to help our beggar friend took the simple path. She was focused on solving this man's hunger. Of course, even if she bought him a whole cart of groceries, he'd still be homeless and very likely hungry again in a few days. But for now, just for a moment, his stomach would be full. His immediate need solved. And he would know that there is genuine goodness in this world. A total stranger cared about him and gave from her heart, expecting nothing in return.
As for the woman who stepped up to help him, she also gave herself the chance to meet a neighbor and see his humanity and dignity. She was free of the burdens of class and status, liberated from the fears of hyper security. Free to really love without thinking too hard about it.
Therein may lie the solution to all our problems.