I am among the most privileged people on the planet. I’m a white male American. I’m a well fed college-educated able-bodied Christian. I’ve been given many advantages in life and, as a Jesuit, I try to acknowledge and respond to my privilege in part through direct outreach to the poor. While I can’t alleviate completely the guilt and frustration I feel as a result of my privilege (it’s inescapable), I accept is as best I can and hope to respond through acts of compassionate solidarity with those less privileged than I.
I spend most Thursday nights with a group of Loyola University-Chicago students who use food as a catalyst for conversation and communion with people experiencing homelessness on Michigan Avenue. Chicago’s Magnificent Mile is home to some of the most erudite, affluent, and fashion-forward citizens in town. You can easily spend thousands of dollars on the latest Louis Vuitton clutches, mountain-ready Patagonia shells, and Ermenegildo Zegna three-piece, two-button, skinny cut suits.
You can also easily spot people looking for some spare change for a burger, or a simple expression of compassion and concern. In recent years it’s become even easier to become the person looking for that spare change or compassionate glance. Along Michigan Avenue that story, the story of opportunity lost, is told all the time. From our place of privilege, we go to the streets; we want to hear this story, because we trust that there is something to learn from it. So we walk around with a cooler of hotdogs, bananas, granola bars, and lemonade, and we look down from the flash of a Burberry store to the man asking for change in front of it.
A few weeks ago, I was out with about five others, and we met Larry. Larry immediately accepted the offer of lemonade from a young woman in our group because, as Larry advised, “You never say no to a woman.” In looking for cues to further engage him in conversation I asked him, “Any other good advice for a younger man?” His tone changed, and his voice dropped a bit as he said, “Keep your hand in Jesus’ hand.” Advice like this often comes with experience deeply rooted, wisdom planted in the cold hard concrete.
The conversation continued, and when asked if there was anything more he needed from us, Larry suggested a pair of gloves if we could find them. Holding out his long, calloused, gnarled hands, he said, “It’s getting cold, after all.” My immediate reaction was to reach out, grab his hands (which were terribly cold) and rub them to help warm him up. I couldn’t help but give myself a pat on the back—here, a man advised me to keep my hand in the hand of Christ, and almost immediately, I was doing just that—recognizing and serving Christ in the poor. “Eric, you’re a good guy,” I thought.
As soon as I thought that to myself, Larry told us that he was HIV positive. Everything inside me recoiled.
I’ve done some outreach to people living with HIV / AIDS. I know that by rubbing Larry’s hand, there was no way I would contract his illness. And still, there was so much I didn’t know about Larry, about his life and his history. We’re often told (as the saying goes) that what we don’t know can’t hurt us. Well, in that moment what I didn’t know really scared me. What I don’t know often scares me.
In that place, somewhere amidst the consumption and consequences of injustice, where the realities of the rich and the poor collide, I was reminded that I’ve been formed by a world that celebrates Gucci stores and the sounds of high heels and hard-soled dress shoes hustling down a road we call “magnificent.” This is not a world that looks down when a soft voice comes up from the pavement, accompanied by the sound of coins rattling in a weathered Starbuck’s cup, asking for a little help as the cold settles in. My privilege shelters me from this side of things. It’s not my reality, and I can’t really understand it. But in some mysterious way, I’m comforted by experiences that reveal the problem of my privilege–experiences that force me to live uncomfortably.
There are lots of pictures of Pope Francis floating around these days, but the two that have struck me most are of him embracing a pair of men afflicted with visible and consuming skin diseases. I wonder what he thought when he encountered them. I wonder if he, too, takes pause when he encounters something he does not understand. Whatever his reaction, I have seen him move lovingly forward time and time again, accepting the other as one made by and celebrated by God. His witness, along with the students I go out with on Thursday nights, and Larry call me forth from my own discomfort and beckon me more deeply into this bumbling along that I call my life.
Larry didn’t know what happened inside me at that moment our hands were touching. I hid the recoil well; even in fear I didn’t let go of his hand. He trusted that I was there to help, and when I finally let go, his hands were warmer than before, if only for a moment. He accepted that gift graciously, and in his acceptance, gave me the gift of life-changing encounter. Even still, I wanted a do over. I wanted to return the following week and warm his hands up free of fear. I wanted him to know how sorry I was.
Yet, I realize that the recoil will always be a part of these encounters. In moments like these we share our broken, flawed nature with each other. As Psalm 51 says, “my sacrifice, O Lord, is a broken spirit.” But, a broken spirit given in the midst of witnessing the poor, the marginalized, the struggling, is what I have to give. And, when I give in relationship, and not for my own means, as Mev Puleo says, “the struggle is one.” I take comfort in this truth, knowing that even in fear and uncertainty my hand is held too.
The cover image, from Flickr user Alex Proimos, can be found here.