Finding compassion in a season of hope
By Christine Emming
We hardly see them anymore, the poor. People, holding signs, dot intersections throughout the metropolis and far into our Denver suburbs. Our eyes slide over them, dodging their faces. We don’t have cash. We can’t always help. Borne of discomfort, the voice inside oozes skepticism, “What will they spend the money on anyway?” Yet a crises occurs within because a small voice whispers, “That could be me,” and another recounts the call: “Feed my people.” The cold glass cracks as the window inches down.
And when it is winter, a burden of truth falls over our hearts. Nobody stands in this weather, banging naked hands against their knees, because it is easier than getting a real job.
When I was eight, my mother arranged to meet a homeless man outside a Byerly’s grocery in Minnetonka, MN, every Friday. If he was sitting on the green bench, she’d wave. We shopped and then handed off a loaf of cinnamon bread and a fat bunch of bananas – our family’s Saturday breakfast. My sisters and I watched behind locked car doors as she’d pass him the bag. I remember his gnarled fingers rucking plastic and his eager smile, but I never saw him eat anything. I worried about him after we moved away, off to midland farm country where we rarely saw the poor, or where everyone was poor enough to render it unrecognizable.
My heart cries to feed people when I volunteer now, even when I donate money. Feeding is what I do at home, after all. But there are many rules, both government- and insurance-based. I cannot bring my children, both under the cut-off age of 10, to watch, to help, to begin understanding the world and its problems. I want them to see people, even when they feel uncomfortable or angry. Saving lies beyond our abilities, but so many small things are not. A few dollars. A sandwich. We aren’t pretending. We are taking care. We must watch over each other in this life.
This fall, we made bags to hand out to the homeless we see each week. Six families volunteered supplies. Our children drew colorful pictures on the bags. Then we filled 36 bags with personal items. We drive with a bag stashed in the front seat, ready to hand out the window.
On the third Sunday of the month, we fill lunch bags with a large group that meets in an empty bar. Unlike the local shelters, they encourage children to help. The organizer went from a millionaire to a homeless man in months and started this event as soon as he’d saved enough money to make an extra lunch. It’s raucous and dirty and inspiring. We make sandwiches loaded with meat – homeless rarely get meat, he says – from mostly donated supplies. When we’re done, the volunteers load up and hand out more than 1,200 finished lunches at four locations downtown. Our brisk walk through downtown streets weighed down with 100 packed bags and back again, light and happier, takes only 15 minutes. Again I wonder where these people eat the rest of the month.
I look at parents begging at street corners and they have my heart. It’s difficult to disassociate from them. Rather than sending money away, I hand it out the window a few dollars at a time. I know, she might spend it on drugs or liquor. Her ultimate use of the money is not mine to know. I am giving it away, and in that moment I am helping – both with my intentions and with letting my kids see these people. They are not invisible. The poor are real, and they need more than our pity.
And so, without an organized food drive in my neighborhood, I do it myself. We make a poster and print it out, and walk the papers around to our neighbors. We ask them to drop off food at our house in two weekends so that we can bring it to the shelter. People are busy and maybe they would do it without us, and possibly we are just saving them a trip. But maybe the reminder garners food for a few more families – I hope, I pray – and we are thanked so profusely at the shelter that I think it must be true.
This is my heart’s work and it does not pay me back. But my heart is bursting, because I’ve helped to fill someone else’s belly. Today that is enough.
Christine Emming organizes quarterly food drives for the local shelter and offers food and money from her car window in all weather.