Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A beggar at Bergdorf's

This afternoon, the second Sunday of Easter, I was walking up Fifth Avenue from Grand Central on my way to the Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. As I crossed 57th Street I could see the figure of a woman half-sitting, half-lying on the sidewalk next to the wall in front of Bergdorf Goodman. Like many people in a big city, I have agonized conversations with myself every time I pass a street beggar. I donate to the Coalition for the Homeless, believing that is a better way to help, but still....

Like everyone else in sight, I passed by the woman (I was in a bit of a hurry anyway). After I had gone perhaps twenty yards I turned back. I had a delayed reaction to her. She was shivering violently and her face was streaked with tears. It was a pretty, sunny afternoon, but quite cold and windy--most people, including me, were bundled up in coats and mufflers. The woman (young, black) had on no outer clothing except a thin, dirty blanket made of some sort of cheap felt-like material.

I never, ever kneel because my knees have been in terrible condition for years, but when I tried to speak to her she could not hear me, so I knelt down on the pavement. I was peripherally conscious of the crowds of pedestrians hastening past, but mostly I was trying to communicate with the woman. I asked her name but it was one of those invented names and I could not catch it. I said something about how she needed real help, more than just the money she was trying to collect in a paper cup. She told me she stayed in a church shelter (she named the church) but that all the guests had to be out by 7:30 AM. I knew from my own city ministry that that was true. I told her that I wished I could offer her some real help. She said a prayer would help. I began to say a prayer.

Here's the point of this story:
After I had been there on my knees for about five minutes, another woman came up and put money in the cup and said kind words. Then a couple came up. Then more people came up with more money and more kind words. A thousand studies have shown this: if one person helps, many will help. If no one helps, it is likely that few will help.

I asked the young woman what she was going to do with the money in the cup (there were only a few coins in it when I first stopped). She said she needed to buy a jacket, that her jacket had been stolen the evening before.

She was probably mentally ill, or an addict. She certainly was not going to find a jacket on Fifth Avenue. What would she do next, where would she go, who would help her at the next stage? My knees gave out--I could barely get up, could hardly walk for a few minutes, and I was of no real use to the woman at all. Did anything that anyone did this afternoon really help her in any significant way? Here is the difference between Christian charity and social action: the causes of homelessness and the neglect of the mentally ill need to be vigorously addressed. Am I going to do this? No. Lord, have mercy.

But I was very much struck with the fact that so many people began to stop. I wished that my grandchildren had been with me to see this. It is important that we be alert to this factor in human behavior, that if one person acts, many will act. If one person says, "Stop the bullying!" (or the abuse, or the cheating, or the hazing, or whatever) then others may take courage as well.

One other detail: When I was on my knees I noticed that under the dirty blanket she had on an expensive-looking tan pashmina (or cashmere) muffler. I said, "This is a very nice scarf you have." She gave a hint of a smile and said, "A man gave it to me this morning." I pictured an elegant man going by on Fifth Avenue, removing the scarf from his own neck (it was a masculine color) and putting it around hers. The image is, somehow, a fragmentary sign that grace does exist. It is, perhaps, better to do something than to do nothing. I will never forget that man and his scarf.