Thursday, September 9, 2010

Happy New Year! Rosh Hashanah and the Homeless

Last night, as Jews across the nation prepared their Rosh Hashanah* feasts, we took dinner to the homeless who gather every Wednesday at First Lutheran for a hot meal. We served lasagne, peas, salad, and all sorts of bread and desserts that a local grocery store donates. Not exactly your traditional Rosh Hashanah meal.

Of course, we're Lutheran, not Jewish, so it wouldn't surprise me if I was the only one who had the Jewish high holy days on the brain. Well, actually, we had some high school students with us, and they have today and Yom Kippur off. I remember the first autumn we lived down here, and how remarkable it seemed to me to have Jewish holidays off. I'm an equal opportunity celebrator: let's have some Muslim and Hindu holidays off too! Before South Florida, I had never lived in any place with enough Jews to affect holiday policy in this way. We moved down here to be part of a more multicultural environment, but before we arrived, I hadn't thought of North American Jews as one of the cultures I'd get to meet.

At the end of the evening, a young homeless couple asked me for bus money. Now I've worked with indigent populations for several decades, and I know the rules: don't give away money. They had such a compelling story about their baby across town in the hospital, so against my better judgment, I dug some quarters out of the car. I knew that I was going to feel bad, no matter what. And if their story is true, and my $3 worth of quarters helps a couple get to their sick baby, I'd rather err on that side. If I'm seen as an easy mark by every homeless person in Broward county, so be it. There are many more worse ways to make a reputation.

I came home and cried until bedtime. I've spent much time worrying about the shrinking middle class and the plight of students as higher ed expenses soar. But spending time with the homeless at First Lutheran reminds me that there's an underclass, and in some ways, perhaps an underclass below the underclass. I used to think that homelessness was a problem of lack of affordable housing and lack of low end jobs. But there's a substantial chunk of the homeless population who, because of various mental challenges, will never be able to hold down a job or care for a dwelling.

I believed the couple's story about their baby. I remember them from back in the spring, and she was pregnant then. I remember wondering what would happen to them when the baby comes. I remember worrying about them at the time.

Let me be blunt: future generations will judge us by the fact that we allowed pregnant women to sleep on the streets. And that judgment should be harsh.

And so I wept last night, for hours. I can't fix this problem. I don't see policy makers who are even aware of the problem. We've given up.

So, I did what I do whenever I run up against a problem that I can't fix. I prayed, and I prayed fiercely. I prayed that God be with our fragile fellow creatures who sleep on hard concrete night after night. I prayed that God show us a way to better care for our fellow people who can't care for themselves. I prayed that God not condemn our society for our lack of compassion.

In retrospect, it seems a good way to start the new year (even though it's a Jewish new year, not a Lutheran one). It's good to realign myself, to remind myself that my values are not the world's values. It's good to remember that God calls us to care for the poor and the dispossessed, not the pop culture heroes. It's good to remember to share our food and to break bread together. It's good to pray to God for justice and for redemption of our fallen creation. It's good to remember God's promise that the redemption of creation is already underway.

*The NPR program Speaking of Faith just did a program on the Jewish holidays. For great resources for the Jewish high holy days, go here.


Mrs. M said...

Reading with a heavy heart. Thanks for sharing.

Working for United Way for a couple of years absolutely confirmed what you say about homelessness being about more than jobs and housing for some people.

Shefali Shah Choksi said...

I know this: your tears & prayers have helped the couple bear whatever they must, because you are all that is Good.