A Beggar's Banquet

My first experience with the homeless and seeing someone in great need was when I moved to New York City the summer of 1983.  I don't remember the very first time I saw someone sleeping on the street or begging at the corner, but I do remember the vaguely uncomfortable feeling I always had when I passed people sleeping on the sidewalk on my way to work.  I honestly couldn't fathom how someone in a city like New York could be homeless.  And I was often unsure of how to help - should I buy food to pass out?  Should I give them money?  Should I do anything at all?  Was I enabling them to stay needy?  (Not pretty thoughts, but honest ones...)

When we moved to Nairobi, however, I was struck immediately by the dire needs of the homeless and I saw people in need on almost every street corner in Nairobi.  The needs were different.  It wasn't just someone standing with a cup or a sign.  Almost everyone I passed by actually couldn't stand.  Their legs were either missing or shriveled from some childhood disease or misfortune.   A friend or relative might carry them on a board to their corner every morning to beg help from Kenyans and tourists alike.  It was heartbreaking.

I think it was Jim Brown's idea to throw a banquet and invite the poor and needy from the streets to join us.  We rented a small hall where we were meeting for church and made food.  And we invited all the people we were passing by every day to join us.  I remember that many of the people we invited were very skeptical.  Several said they would come but didn't show up - even some that we promised to come and pick up were not in their usual places on the day of the party.

We set a pretty table, not fancy, but nice.  With plates, silverware and napkins - just like we would all eat at home.  Nothing plastic.  Real plates and real silverware. 

When people began to arrive, their reactions were strange to us.  We invited them to sit down.  We offered to help them sit in the chairs.  Many of them were amazed that we would offer them chairs.  They couldn't understand that we were not going to be eating, but wanted to serve them instead.  As we talked with them (the Kenyan disciples had to translate for us foreigners - most of those in attendance could only speak Swahili or their "mother tongue"), we found out that several of them had never sat at a table before and many had never used silverware to eat.

Fixing food that day and preparing this party for those people was a small thing for us to do.  But it was huge for them.  They had never been honored like that before.  I would be surprised if any of them had ever had a birthday party.  It was good for my heart.  I was happy to help, but I was also afraid.  Afraid to touch and be too close.  I wish that weren't so, but it was.  I was uncomfortable and didn't really know what to say most of the time.  I do know that after that event, my attitude toward those people changed.  I didn't just pass them by on the street anymore.  They had changed from a face in need to a face I knew, a person with a name that I remembered.  And giving them money or food was easy for me to do as well.  As we talked I got to know their stories, their lives and their needs.  I even started to look for them and remember feeling distressed if someone wasn't in their normal spot for awhile.

I'm thankful Jim had the idea to throw a party that day.  I'm thankful I was challenged to grow and become more like Jesus in the way I looked at those in need.  And I'm glad the question of what to do for them and how to treat them was answered.  My money didn't enable them.  My money, my food and my acknowledgment of them kept them healthy and let them know someone cared. 

Lori ZieglerComment