25 septembrie 2014
"We hid as it were our faces from him"
Romania has a lot of beggars, most of them gypsies. (I will refrain from commenting on other kinds and sources of "exploitation" that I'm aware of in Romania--I'll just say begging as a form of exploitation is the least of their concerns.)
I had an epiphany shortly after moving here: I ask God for stuff I don't deserve all the time. If I want to have any hope of actually getting what I ask for, I better be prepared to give other people stuff they don't deserve when they ask me for it. We have to demonstrate to God that we share the grace He gives us to others, otherwise He will find us unworthy (Matt 18:23-34). It does not matter if we "know" it's a scam--like the little gypsy girl I saw in Zorilor three consecutive summers of living there, who always asked for money "because she was hungry," yet got chubbier every summer. Every time we ask God for a boon, we are scamming Him just as badly, because we don't deserve it, and we can never repay.
King Benjamin also taught that the ONLY acceptable excuse for saying "no" to a beggar is if you don't have anything to give him. And yet, somehow we read Mosiah chapter 4 and conclude there are any number of additional acceptable excuses to turn someone away. In order to truly "walk guiltless" before God, I simply can't see any other answer than to simply give when someone asks for it, if you can. How clearer do the scriptures have to be on the point that we are simply not qualified to judge? (Matt 7:1-5)
There is an old homeless guy who put a child-sized mattress down on the grass near where I used to live. He fits on the child's mattress because both of his legs have been amputated above the knee. Alex was the first one to start greeting him as she passed him on her way to the bus stop, but I felt kind of awkward every time she did it. But then once when I passed him, a phrase came to mind: "and we hid as it were our faces from him" (Isaiah 53:3). It stopped me cold. As you pass a disabled person on the street, a drunk, someone who is obviously mentally ill, someone who is putrid and dirty, or anyone who is begging, isn't your first instinct to look away? If you don't make eye contact with gypsies who are begging in the street, they are much less likely to approach you. And the stinky, mentally ill, and infirm are embarrassing to us, and it's easier to deal with their presence out in the open on our streets if we just pretend they aren't really there. Isaiah would called this technique "hiding as it were your face from them." When that phrase came to mind, I felt a deep shame, and I stopped, greeted the old man, and asked him if he needed anything.
Since I had these epiphanies, I've felt a significant change of heart. I don't feel awkward about a lot of things anymore. I was able to sit and talk to a lonely woman at an old folks' home, and we actually had things to talk about. I don't look away from unsightly people on the street. They are there, and they are sick as a consequence of the corrupt culture and economy that I myself participate in and make a living out of. If a beggar or anyone else, for that matter, asks me for a favor or money or food, and I have the means and ability to do it at that moment, I will do what they ask for. When I think about beggars, it's the missed opportunities in the past that make me feel guilty. I have turned away from a lot of people in my life so far, so I have a bit of catching up to do, but "walking guiltless" is where I want to be (Mosiah 4:26).
A supplementary thought about gypsies: the Roma are a separate ethnic group, distinct from the cultures of the countries they live in. In many ways they are still quite tribal, and they kind of remind me of the Lamanites: hunter-gatherers trying to live in a society of farmers, having to resort to trickery, raiding, and scavenging to survive. In the "old days," they were transients who provided seasonal labor, traveling entertainment, handyman services, and cheaply produced goods. Now machines have ended much of the need for seasonal labor; people get their entertainment at the movies, listen to it on the radio, or download it off the internet; when things get broken, it's often easier/cheaper to replace it than fix it; and we produce any cheap goods we need in Asia. So what are the gypsies supposed to do? They are a culture that has adapted extremely poorly to the world we live in today. Even the gypsies who don't beg have trouble finding a niche: some of them scavenge from the garbage (Leviticus 19:9-10 is a good scripture for us to apply here), some of them sell fruit on the roadside, some of them trade silver and other kinds of goods. So even if I am bothered by the professional begging techniques, and how they teach their children to lie at a very early age (somehow, all child beggars tell you they are orphans and homeless), I feel compassion for them. I think everyone needs to be kinder to gypsies.