For the ancient Greeks, Zeus is known as the Stranger’s Friend. He’s the Protector of the Suppliant. It’s unthinkable to refuse to provide for a stranger or a person in need as it’s an immediate affront to Zeus and invokes the Lightning-Bearers wrath. The word for this cultural—and religious—obligation is Xenia. It means hospitality.
I wonder what it would be like to live in a society where hospitality is extended to everyone—even a stranger. In one part of my mind I see a Utopian sort of social structure where everyone has and no one goes without. But I know that’s not how it is in ancient Greece. Would people have been as inclined to help the stranger if the threat of Zeus didn’t loom over them? Somehow I don’t think so. But what I find fascinating about ancient Greece is that the word for guest, host and stranger is the same, xenos. There is not meant to be a distinction between the one who has and the one who doesn’t.
I sit in the car. My heart’s thumping. Sure, I’ve escaped an encounter with a panhandler, yet I feel irritated. Why is it that my heart races when I see someone begging for money? Why do I feel as if I’m being preyed upon? Why is it such an automatic response to flee? To lower my head? To avoid eye contact?
I used to tell myself that we live in Canada, that there’s absolutely no reason for anyone to be on the streets. With all the social systems in place surely everyone should have a place to sleep and enough food to eat, right? It must be that people who live on the streets choose to do so. Is it my fault if their government cheques get spent on something other than rent or groceries? Panhandlers became equivalent to con-artists, in my mind. They are people who abuse the system and then target individuals for more. I am the victim, right?
It’s probably the guy who panhandles around the Edmonds neighbourhood in Burnaby that makes me the most cynical. I’ve heard about how he and his girlfriend need money to get to Edmonton countless times. It must be going on seven years now that he’s been saving up for that trip.
After meeting him, I decided to stop giving away any cash—ever. I justified to myself and to others that it’s not socially responsible. I mean, who knows what the money gets used for? I had a friend who pushed backed though. She said it’s not up to us to ask that question. From her perspective as a Christian, Jesus says to “give to everyone who asks you.” In others words, there are no conditions on giving. No clauses that say “give only if you know the money gets put to proper use.” At the time, I mentally scoffed at what I thought was her naïveté.
Like the early Greeks, though, who saw the stranger as a potential god in disguise, Christian theology also associates the stranger with deity:
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and show you hospitality or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these you did for me.’
Matthew 25: 37-40
I think about all the times I refused to give strangers money. All the times I said “no” before a panhandler even spoke. If there’s anything to Christ’s words, I’m able to connect the dots. To reject the stranger or to reject the poor and needy is also to reject Christ.
It’s a hard thing to reconcile the needs of the poor. I couldn’t justify not giving money to someone in need for very long. Not unless I was doing something else in its place. So I got smart about it—or so I thought. If someone asked for bus money, I offered a bus ticket. If someone asked for money for food, I offered to buy their lunch. My work place often saw a lot of people come in off the street to ask for help. So I learned to keep a bag of non-perishable groceries on hand and a few frozen foods in the freezer. I thought I was fairly clever—weeding out the ones who were looking to take advantage of others from the ones who truly needed what they asked for.
My system wasn’t perfect though. I know it’s easy enough to turn around and sell the bus ticket for cash. I often cringed at some of the places I bought people lunch—MacDonald’s doesn’t seem to satisfy any food group requirements. And a can of food is useless to someone who doesn’t own a can opener.
Besides, in trying not to be taken advantage of by con-artist panhandlers was I missing the point of something larger?
So here I sit at Superstore. My son is safely buckled into his car seat and my trunk is full of groceries. I look in my wallet and see fives, tens and twenty-dollar bills. It’s only been a couple of months since I decided to give money, no questions asked, when approached by a panhandler. So why did I rush to get into my car? Is it that ingrained into my psyche that panhandlers need to be avoided?
I’m irritated with myself so I come up with a plan. I’m going to fix whatever it is that needs to be fixed. I pull out a twenty and fold it in thirds. It’s tucked under the palm of my hand against the steering wheel as I back out of my spot. I drive slowly through the parking lot looking for the panhandler. Surely he must still be here? I wonder how often panhandlers have someone offer them money rather than having to ask for it? I wonder how often they are given anything more than loonies or toonies? I wonder for whose benefit I’m doing what I’m about to do—mine or his?
I see him two lanes over struggling with the shopping carts. I roll down my window and pull my car up just as he turns around.
“Excuse me,” I call. “Did I hear you say that you need some money?” How stupid does that sound? Who wouldn’t say “yes”?
Immediately his hands come together like a child who’s about to say a prayer. “Oh yes, please ma’am.” He bows as he speaks.
“Here you go,” I say and slide the twenty into his palm. As I begin to drive away I hear him gasp, “Oh my God.”
“God bless you!” he calls after me. I wave my hand out of the window but I’m already at the end of the row about to turn out of the parking lot.
My heart still beats fast. I’m waiting for my emotions to calm down. I wait for that feeling to arrive—the feeling that lets me know I’ve done something right. I expect to feel satisfaction. But it doesn’t come.
I don’t doubt there’s self-serving motivation behind every moment of giving. It’s not that I’m unaware of this. But it doesn’t mean there isn’t also a genuine desire to help others, does it? I imagine this man is grateful to be given money without having to ask. And I imagine he’s glad to receive more than just loonies and toonies. So why am I still wrestling with the situation?
It’s not until I pass the Arthur Laing Bridge that it hits me.
I think I assumed I was offering dignity to this man—by giving before he asked and by giving more than he expected. But does that bring dignity? I didn’t look him in the eye. I didn’t stop long enough to talk. I still treated him as a panhandler and not as a person. Was the image of Christ in this man? I didn’t look to see it. I was the host and he was the stranger; I was the one who had and he was the one who didn’t. There was no xenia. There was no hospitality. Where’s the dignity in that?
There remains a long journey on the road to becoming a stranger’s friend.
Any insights or comments to share? Where are you on the journey?