Today I am thankful for a cell phone. Not my cell phone, mind you, but a cell phone I saw this past Saturday.
My drive to work took me on a detour route through a rougher part of town just off my normal route downtown. A homeless man sat at the corner of an intersection with his belongings gathered closely beside him. I assumed the bags were his since it seemed he had one that looked to be clothing and personal effects. Another seemed to be cans and/or various things that could be put into one of the local machines for some quick change. There was also a blanket draped between the bags and over his lap. He did have one belonging that seemed not to match the others. He sat talking on a cell phone as cars passed and the city began to show the life of the weekend and almost-holiday activity.
I was sitting comfortably in my car when I saw him. I had my coffee in the console and my coat laying in the passenger seat. I hadn’t put the coat on because I had taken the time while getting ready that morning to preheat the car for a few minutes before driving it. However, one needs a coat in the car just in case of a flat tire or other emergency. I saw him talking on his cell phone as I sat in traffic two lanes away from him. I thought of stopping to see if he needed anything but by my clock, I was pushing just getting to work on time. I needed to get there on time in order to post a FaceBook status that would let those there know where in the building to meet. Time was of the essence and by my car thermometer it had already warmed up a degree since I’d started my drive.
It wasn’t the coldest Saturday that we’d had but it was close to it. At 37 degrees it wasn’t freezing. I made the walk from the house to the car earlier without discomfort but I’d have been a fool to not bring a coat along. I had felt the bite of the cold on my ears as I got into my car. It was cold enough that at that intersection that the man’s hat was stretched down as far as it would go. His coat was wrapped tight, hood pulled up, and cell phone inserted between hood and hat and he held it with gloved hands. I assumed he was under the blanket earlier but his conversation may have turned his attention away from keeping the blanket tight. Perhaps 37 degrees now seemed warm compared to the dip down in the 20s just a few hours earlier before sunrise. I cannot say for what reason he had moved the blanket or why he had felt no need to use it now.
I am thankful for that cell phone.
I am thankful that he had a line outside of his existence that could reach a shelter, emergency service, agency, church, or hotline. I am thankful that he had a way of reaching family members and friends. I am thankful that he had a line that routed to him personally in the event of an employer calling for labor. I am thankful that someone, somewhere had the kindness to give it to him, buy it for him, or provide a way for him to purchase it whether that someone was a friend, family member, non-profit agency, church, or the government.
I am thankful that he had the courage to use the phone in public. The judgment of those driving by is not an easy load to bear, I’m sure. It had to be hard to ask for his simple needs such as food, shelter, or currency when those he asks draw any number of assumptions about his hunger or other needs as he’s holding a cell phone. Those assumptions happen quickly and come with massive weight. It seems that there are those who wish to begrudge the poor not only of their poverty but also of the belongings they may own – as if a cell phone were an insult to the state of poverty or owning one despite being homeless is an insult to those above poverty level.
I am no different from those who make assumptions. I know at first glance I assumed he was homeless, that the things sitting around him were his, that the phone was given to him rather than purchased of his own accord by his own means. I made the assumption that he had something to keep him warm in the 37 degree weather (after all, he had a cell phone, right?). I analyzed the sight of him and weighed it against my agenda for the morning. I could have stopped but my excuses were many: the light turned green, there was a lane of cars that prevented me from turning to stop and help him, I have a scheduled appointment, and he looks like he has “stuff”, he has a cell phone and it’s obviously working, and it’s only 37 degrees – not freezing. He may not have even been homeless, for crying out loud. I am thankful for that cell phone – so that the Lord has provided him a line to reach out and talk to someone if for no other reason than to give him a person with whom he could speak about enduring the assumptions and resulting judgment of a sinner like me.
This phone was an older “flip phone”, not a smart phone, and for that I am also thankful. I would hate for him to have had immediate access to the pious, posturing throngs on social networks like FaceBook who post about the poor who own cell phones and the poor who buy frivolous luxuries like smart phones when they should be purchasing only absolute necessities or should instead be out looking for jobs. Everyone with social networking capability has friends, “religious” and/or “patriotic” pontificators, who are the first to profess the burden this man on a cell phone places upon them personally. I would hate for him to have seen the posts regarding a lazy, poor man who had no sense to get out of the bitter cold, or was too lazy to get a job, or preferred to mooch off “lawabiding taxpayers” but doesn’t mind talking on his “government” or “Obama” cell phone. I’m sure he would have been judged the same way if he were in the grocery store standing in line to purchase whatever food can be purchased with the money that can be made from a grocery bag of recycled cans (I’m assuming that was his job – shame on me). I am also thankful that I didn’t see someone taking a phone camera picture of him to post on FaceBook with some trite, politicized statement about the economy, the poor or poverty, or, God forbid, a political candidate or partisan idea. I would have hated this for the man’s dignity even though I wasn’t sure how incurring public judgment, his demonization, or stripping him of dignity measures up against a night in freezing temperatures. I barely know the pain of any of these situations and I didn’t stop to help him in his situation, so how can I know what is worse?
He helped me realize I have no true understanding of the plight and perspective of those who are pushed by poverty into the fringes of our society. I realized that my assumptions and judgment didn’t help this man one tiny bit when he needed it most and that my prayer at that moment didn’t warm him, feed him, shelter him, befriend him, educate him, or share the love of Christ with him. The congregation I donate to each week wasn’t there to give to him anything. The non-profit organization to which I donate wasn’t there to shelter him, shower him, feed him or warm him. At best, at very best, I can hope that what I pay in taxes helped provide that phone that gave him a tiny path out of the pain of the cold. I know what I pay in taxes is small in comparison to others and that it is then diluted by the amounts paid the millions of Americans who also pay into that system. However, I do hope that some of that went to him. Upon realizing that a man was left in the cold, I didn’t care whether my taxes were routed directly from a government program or from a government benefit to a non-profit that has enough compassion to provide such. It’s a very, very long shot that it did, but it may ease my conscience if I knew absolutely and without a doubt that he benefitted from something I provided. This long shot is a statement of guilt that shows that I’ve chosen the judgment of myself that provides the least shame to me. This does not change that my whole assessment and action is shameful and reproachable, full of greed and selfishness. It’s shameful on me as a christian, an American, and as a person that I reduced the situation to “taxes.” I can’t guarantee that my taxes helped this man. I can, however, guarantee that I’ve helped build and perpetuate a world that is sustained and can only be navigated well and efficiently by owning and overusing cell phones, computers, and technology. I helped him have the need of owning a cell phone to function and prosper. I can’t say I helped him get one.
In my mind I had wished him to “go in peace, be warmed and filled” and was even arrogant enough to offer a prayer to my God on his behalf knowing full well that God had already answered this prayer and sent a people to cheerfully warm and fill him. How dare I assume this man needed no blessing that morning. How dare I presume to weigh the hypothetical situations of taxes, abuse of charity, another’s lack of responsibility, or political ideology against the very real sight of a human being sitting in the cold. What was the danger or risk in this to me? This man could have been a thief, a murderer, or an addict which my scripture says is an offense to him. However, I didn’t know any of this – I couldn’t know any of this. The only true assumption is that this man was cold and unsheltered – and my scripture says that this is an offense credited to me.
Lord, my prayer now is to ask You to please save this man from sinners like me.
I am thankful that his cell phone brought about my confession. Confessing weakness and ignorance is, I pray, the beginning of strength and knowledge. Hearing this about myself brings about faith, and hearing this is just like hearing the word of Christ at the end of Matthew 25. I’d heard that passage many times before read aloud and recited publicly. That Saturday, I actually heard it. Faith will come by hearing; and hearing by that word.
I am so thankful that he had a cell phone so that he could call someone, anyone, better than I was that day. Whether he knew it or not, he called someone better for me.