Multiple “Realities”?

Multiple “Realities”?

Howard Thurman wrote, “Proximity without understanding breeds hatred.”  I just ran head long into a situation that brought the deepest meaning of that statement into stark visibility for me.  A person that I work with was very upset, and rightly so, with something that one of our volunteers had done that put a lease we need in jeopardy.  Indeed, the volunteer’s actions cost us our pantry’s lease.  One of our volunteers who was entrusted with keys had let a homeless couple (including the volunteer’s sister) stay in our food pantry during a recent cold snap without permission from our landlord, and without letting anyone know he was doing so.  Our landlord found out about it, and went ballistic.   The landlord is a steward of the building, and is responsible for it.  If those that he answers to found out about a homeless couple staying in the building, his job could be in jeopardy for the same reason that our lease was/is in jeopardy.  The irony is not lost on me that the people he is accountable to are church officials. The irony is also not lost on me that this happened a few days before Christmas.

Another person who is instrumental in our mission and who has a position of responsibility who was unaware of the situation found himself in the terrible position of having to tell the landlord that he didn’t know anything about the couple because he didn’t know anything about it.  Well, sort of.  He had heard people in the building and told me about it, and we both thought that maybe the family that leases the upper floor of the building was sheltering some family members secretly.  We didn’t want the family to get into trouble, so we didn’t say anything about it. We chose to look the other way. I remember telling  him that if someone was being kept off the street, I didn’t want to be responsible for putting them back out there.  This person has worked extremely hard to make our feeding mission very effective and very successful in a very short period of time.  He works hard to make this mission work.  Losing the lease because we breached it will be a giant setback to our mission.  In a moment of great frustration and exasperation, he said, “What was he (the volunteer) thinking?!?! Has he lost his mind?!?! This could cost us our lease! In the ‘real’ world, he just can’t do things like this. He will never understand!!”

I live in three worlds and move between three paradigms several times in any given day.  I work among the poor.  I am middle-class.  And I frequently rely upon the amazing generosity of the wealthy in order to do what we do. While I do not condone using access to facility that is not ours to do something secret, what has occurred here has revealed a problem that we have not yet addressed in our mission field.  I tell people never to steal what they can ask for.  If I know someone is homeless and at risk, I do everything in my power to get them to a safe place.  In the scope of things, my position and years of relationship building with people who have access to considerable resources and assets has afforded me some degree of “power” to help to resolve situations like the one that this homeless couple is in.  But what does a person do who is asked for help – is compassionately connected to the pain and danger of the situation – do when they have NO power?  They do things that make no rational sense in the paradigm that the middle and upper classes in our country think and live in.  But that doesn’t mean that they make no rational sense.

In the landlord’s reality, everything is held together by contracts and legal documents and issues of domain and ownership.  In his reality, the maintenance of property is his priority, as is the management of liabilities.  Without those things, in the paradigm that he operates in, the world would be chaos…and the truth is, it probably would be chaos, in fact.  But to even enter into a contractual agreement, one has to have a certain standing in society that not everyone has access to.  We have to have good credit, a clean police record, a good track record of job responsibility, a driver’s license and social security card.  Those things hold the paradigm together and make things work. But if a person is missing even one of those criteria, they are crippled in terms of full participation and access.  There are illusions in the paradigm that create chasms between the world that ought to be, and the world that is.  In the mind of the person in his moment of extreme frustration, it became clear to me that anyone’s predicament that didn’t fit into his paradigm was simply not “real”.  In the mind of the landlord, a church representative, anyone’s predicament that didn’t fit into his paradigm was simply irrelevant.  And it was also clear that the volunteer didn’t take the fact that the consequences of his choice would not only affect him, but it would affect perhaps thousands who rely on this mission.  He couldn’t grasp that others would look at this differently than he did.  Through the volunteer’s lens, the values and liabilities of the landlord were irrelevant to the situation. Irrelevance and not “real” are illusions…distortions…and “distortion” is another word for sin.  Sin not only separates us from one another as if we live in different realities.  It also separates us from God whose intention for the world is found in the image of a “seamless garment” – no separations between us.

In the volunteer’s reality, everything is held together by one’s willingness to help people out even if helping them out put’s the helper at tremendous risk.  The reason it makes sense is because in the volunteer’s reality, it is a mere thread of good fortune that keeps them from being in exactly the same shoes as the person he was trying to help.  He had been there before and probably will be there again.  When he finds himself there again, he will be dependent on the willingness of other people to take those same risks to help him out.  Risks that seem insane in one paradigm, are part of day-to-day mundane existence in the paradigm of the powerless.  You help people out because very soon you are likely to need them to help you out.  In any apartment in the part of the city we serve, you will find multiple people living there who are not on the lease and who the landlord has not approved to be there.  Sure it puts the renter at risk, but tomorrow it could be them on the street, dependent upon others to take a risk to provide them shelter.  It is very real.  It just doesn’t fit neatly into the world of contracts and property rights.  When you have no access to legal means, legal means are seen to be irrelevant – again, a separation.  On the other hand, wringing one’s hands and simply saying that there are homeless shelters for people like this couple is tantamount to Scrooge’s statement, “Are there no poor houses? Are there no prisons?”

Also in the volunteer’s reality, young women on the street are raped and murdered.  We have two women on our client list who were homeless and were murdered in the last two years.  The murderer was never found in either case.  Why? Because nobody with real power cares.  People with real power rarely personally know people with no power.  Even if they know them, it is rare indeed that they “understand” them.  I personally know five women who were raped while homeless.  I know too many women to name who were willing to trade sex for shelter.  That’s real.  Now suppose the woman in question is your sister, and you know too many women to name who were raped or abused or entered into abusive relationships for lack of options while they were on the street. (How do we think women get into prostitution for heaven’s sake?!?!  Do we think they do that because they are starved for sex? Or because they are all drug addicts?!?! They don’t start out that way.  They end up that way because they are powerless and lose hope for anything else.)  And suppose you have keys to a building that could be used to shelter her.  And suppose there was even a small chance you wouldn’t get caught.  And suppose the building housed a ministry that purported to be there to help the poor. And suppose the building belonged to a church – an organization that espouses the concepts of compassion and forgiveness.   And suppose you thought that agencies like those would at least understand your sister’s predicament and would jump at the chance to help, or least would forgive you if they found out.  And suppose that you knew that if you didn’t help your sister, nobody else would.  What would you do? That, my friends, is the “real world”, too.

In this case, we had a volunteer who did not understand the reality that putting someone into a building without authorization put a man’s job at risk, and put our lease at risk, thus putting the mission itself at risk.    Indeed, it cost us our lease.  Our landlord gave us five months to relocate.  I am at least grateful for THAT charity.  And we also had a landlord who does not understand that a girl on the street is in real peril, and who does not understand that women don’t last long on the street.  In the meantime, I listened very carefully to what our landlord said, and he is working hard to find ways to demonize us and morally justify his decision.  He doesn’t realize that he doesn’t need to do that.  What’s done is done.  That’s a whole lot of not understanding, and that can be overcome with education.  But to say that one way of looking at things is “real” and one way is not real, is a much harder problem to overcome. The need to demonize is almost impossible to overcome.  In the real world, responsibility holds things together. Yes. Without stewardship for property and responsibility to uphold contracts and agreements, the world would be a much worse place.  Our volunteer risked things that were not his to risk. Yes.  And also in the real world, people are abused and die, and those people have brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers who know their names and love them the same way that wealthy people love their kids.  In the real world, people make mistakes, and our only hope is to use those mistakes as learning opportunities.  THAT is the only hope for any of us.  ANY of us. Can we, at least for a moment, see that one world is no more real than the other world? The lines that separate them are illusions that must be addressed before hatred takes over and actually does throw the whole world into real chaos.

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