In the summer of 1995, I visited my friend Denise in San Francisco. She was living in Berkeley, attending UC Berkeley, and I was in town for a Pearl Jam concert. I’d been to San Francisco twice before—once with my family, as we passed through on a road trip to Seattle; the other time was with two high school friends and one of their two older sisters. But never as an adult, which I was feeling more and more like as I approached my 21st birthday (just two short months away).
She was showing me the city and, down by the wharf, there were a lot of homeless people. They seemed to be everywhere, and I was stunned. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, I’d really only seen the occasional bum pushing a shopping cart or in a movie. I’d seen them from afar during a field trip to a museum or play in downtown L.A., but never really up close.
One of the first who approached us asked me for money, and without thinking, I took out my wallet and handed the guy a dollar. This is what you did, right? Denise was shocked. “You just don’t do that,” she said, and not in a snobbish way, more out of concern, like you-were-lucky-that-firecracker-didn’t-go-off-in-your-hand way. I was confused, as if I’d done something wrong. During that afternoon, the more I acclimated to the city and its seemingly immense homeless population, I understood—you just couldn’t. Now I couldn’t stop seeing homeless people everywhere I looked. This was poverty like I had never seen it.
I was amazed that I’d never really encountered homeless people before, but then I realized I probably had—they’d been there all along, I just never noticed, or chose not to notice. Come to think of it, I hadn’t really notice any of the poor before either.
In the Book of Psalms, the poor finally get noticed.
Interestingly, this seems to be the first chunk of the Bible where pleas for the poor and needy surface. Given how much of what I have thought of Christianity is linked to looking after the poor, I was shocked to see how long it took for mention of this idea to surface (41:1; 70:5).
Sure, you could say that God has looked after the Israelites for hundreds of years—they’ve been needy, right? Traveling through desert, needing bread? God delivered—but this spoke to an entire people, not to a set of people within the Israelite (or general) population. At this point, a lot of people are prosperous. So the idea that everyone needed to look out for those in need is interesting. Another interesting thing is how out of tone this idea sounds with the rest of the Old Testament thus far (amidst all the war, vengeance, disrespect for women, etc.).
Given this first mention of the need to look after the poor, perhaps it’s also interesting that Psalms seems to be the Book that contains the first hints of Jesus (2:2). (When I think of Christianity, I think of Jesus caring for the poor.) In Psalms, his resurrection is also alluded to (16:9-11). I would have liked to see this idea in the context of a story, for it wouldn’t feel so forced in here—as if, like a George Lucas script, a plot line had been intended all along, rather than thought of after the fact. There’s no sense that Jesus is offered as a prophecy up until this point; otherwise, you’d feel the natural progression of his arrival. But the psalmists probably had Jesus on the brain, which explains why they thought of the poor.
I live in Philly, and here we have a lot of homeless people. Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t pretend otherwise. I wish I could say that my heart breaks every time I breeze past one of them, but I don’t. Perhaps I’m too overwhelmed by how many I see to be moved (which, I get, sounds backwards). I wish I could get over the reflex that no matter what money (or food) I gave, I’d be making little (if any) difference. The one guy taking donations in exchange for a copy of the One Step Away newspaper (outside Whole Foods on South Street) is always appreciative when I give him a dollar, though (check them out: http://www.osaphilly.com/). I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like I was making some difference every time I did. I do it because it feels like the right thing to do, as a human being, not as a person with any religious leanings.