While much has been written (by the left, at least) of the economic consequences of wealth inequality in the United States, less often mentioned is the spiritual damage wrought by greed on both the Rich and the Rest.
If prodigal Wall Street could have walked with
truly open eyes among their victims in those cities of cloth
and nylon erected by the foreclosed-upon that sprang up outside many cities in the wake of the mortgage crisis, their hearts would have been broken.
Not by the deprivation and primitive material circumstances, but by the
realization that in a very real way, the people there had infinitely
more riches than the Wall Streeters did.
The residents of those tent cities realized and enjoyed the
fundamental mutuality that is the very essence of being children of God.
They knew that they are truly brothers and sisters, and shared what they
have with one another not by writing a check, but by making room at
their camp stove for a stranger who had it worse than them.
It is worth mentioning that I have known people in my personal life who “came from money.” Some
have been generous and warmhearted to a fault. But a story I keep
hearing is of entire families where whole generations of children sit
and wait for someone to die so they can come into their money. I hear of
such circumstances and feel both revulsion and pity at the spiritual
desolation this represents, and also a metaphysical dread for a society
that considers this as unremarkable as the (related?) fact that millions of its
children live in poverty.
I believe the spiritual desolation that is all too common in our
rich, and the material deprivation of our poor, are inseparably related.
They are both symptoms of greed — and not just at a personal level.
They are deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society.
Lest anyone think I’m pointing fingers from some summit of wisdom and
holiness, I’ll hasten to add that the greed and desolation I describe
lives very much in me, too.
On many Wednesday evenings, I have fed the homeless of Berkeley at a
Lutheran Church near the Cal campus. I started doing this a couple years
ago when a friend of mine, who was then just back into Alcoholic
Anonymous meetings and sobriety after many years out, recommended the
Doing this has changed me. At first, it took some getting used to, in
particular the smells of people who sleep rough in the streets, who
have no dental care, no medical care, their faces and bodies begrimed by
the doorways that are their pillows every night, and from some the odor
of whatever chemical they use to ease the pain of being forgotten.
There are as many stories in the meal hall as there are diners.
One guy bought a house and, because he was naive, was cheated of
thousands of dollars. In the end he had no house and had lost his job
and was on the streets.
That’s the thing about dealing one on one with homeless people: You hear their stories, and they become just people.
They stop being a category — a mental abstraction, a “them” — and
become richly complex individuals with stories as filled with vice and
divine grace as my own.
When I started going to the meal hall in Berkeley, I thought I was
bringing Christ’s compassion to the people there — but I realized as
time went on that they were really bringing Christ to me. In those weary
faces at the tables, I saw Christ staring back at me, asking me where
I’d been all this time.
He had been out there, in doorways, shivering in cold rain and stumbling in rags, waiting for me to show up.
I feed Him in His homeless, and in return, in an act of astounding
and tender mercy, He has shown me the depths of my own brokenness.
Most of all He has shown me that we need to somehow tear down the walls that separate us from one another.