Alternate Realities and Alternate Poverties

As a child, whenever I was approached by beggars on the streets of Shanghai, I recall pausing and reaching for my coin purse before my parents would pull me along and gently reprimand me: didn’t I know my money would just encourage their slothfulness, that if these people really tried they could find a real job? Their words did not sit well with me, not then or later as I repeatedly encountered homeless people in every city we visited or lived in. But then again, who was I to disobey my parents’ wishes, when I wasn’t even sure what difference my contribution would make?

Entering university and once again facing the glaring reality of homelessness in the world’s wealthiest economy, I sought to educate myself about an injustice that seemed beyond comprehension. In my community psychology class, I was surprised to learn that the primary driver of homelessness is not mental illness, addiction, or crime but simply the lack of affordable housing. In my daily devotionals, I was challenged by account after account in which Jesus chose to spend time with and care for the homeless, poor, diseased, and despised in first-century Jewish society. Around campus, I began to strike up conversations beyond the cursory “Hello, how are you?” with street paper vendors I saw regularly, curious to hear their stories and hoping to help meet some of their immediate needs.

It was during one of these conversations that I first befriended Stephen and Edie, over a year ago. A startling number of characteristics unite us. We work and live in Nashville, where Stephen and I are both students pursuing social science degrees at local universities. We are passionate about people and theology and social justice, and we love and worship the same God. When we are spending time together, exchanging stories, I can almost forget the barriers that separate us.

Yet, we live completely different realities. Each day, Stephen and Edie bravely bear the scars of having lost their home and their youngest daughter in the Nashville flood of 2010. Each day, as they earn their daily living dollar by dollar, they choose to bless and pray not only for the passersby who are kind to them, but also for the many who hurry on with blank expressions and averted eyes, or even hurl food and mockery in their faces. Each day, Stephen and Edie thank Jesus for His continuous mercies and daily provision. Is it not I who am spiritually poor, and they who God has sent to fill my poverty?

I have a long way to go before I can truly understand or empathize with the experiences of Stephen, Edie, and many worldwide who may suffer even more than they do. But I refuse to sit in inaction, paralyzed by the ambiguity of who and how best to help. With each life and alternate reality I choose to intertwine with mine— Stephen, Edie, and other homeless friends I have met, the street-smart African American first graders I tutor every Wednesday, my ex-students in Phnom Penh who still dearly hold my heart, those I hope to meet and share life with through PiA—I will learn to engage rather than to overlook, to love rather than fear, and to be a catalyst for radical compassion.

Felicia Hanitio

Jakarta Cohort, 2018