It is a gray, rainy Monday afternoon in March and I am on a median strip at a major intersection in Cranston, Rhode Island. With about 40 others, I am trying to give leaflets and information to motorists stopped at the lights. We are asking for their solidarity with panhandlers who are now prohibited from asking for help at key intersections in Cranston. Today, by our actions we are ourselves violating that law.
The new anti-panhandling ordinance was proposed by Mayor Alan Fung, seizing the new Trumpian political moment to exclude the poor who have nothing left but to beg from the roadsides. To many of us at the public hearings in Cranston before the vote, it seemed something basic was at stake. It is this: The power to ask for help when in need, and the power to give help when you choose, are foundational for the existence of society. Without these two things, healthy community is unthinkable and in times like these, such basic rights must be defended.
However, it was clear in the response to the testimony at the hearings that nothing could open the minds of the mayor’s five loyal councilmen, who dutifully obeyed him in this further act of grinding down the poor in this new ban on acts of free speech and charity in our town.
So today I, and my new friends, stand by the public road with our signs determined to resist with our solidarity, the hardness of heart at Cranston City Hall. From a distance, the police photograph our offering of leaflets to motorists, documenting our violation of law in the exercise of human rights.
For some of us, this is also a spiritual practice. Actions like this are demanded from those who seek to follow the Way of Jesus. His command was simple: “Give to every one who begs from you.” (Matthew 5:42) Against such a practice of Love and religion, the mayor and his council can surely make no valid law.
The Roman Catholic Bishop Tobin disagrees. He urges his people to refuse panhandlers lest their actions help in sustaining “a very unhealthy and degrading lifestyle,” worrying that by giving help on the street someone might be helped who is “without legitimate needs.”
The Bishop argues that such direct aid is unnecessary because, “Our community has legitimate and structured means of helping the poor and needy.” I hear that a lot but I can testify as a former Pastor of a church among the poor in RI, that our “structured” anti-poverty agencies are literally besieged and cannot possibly help everyone in a timely way. Direct help is often needed, and those who choose to help directly should not be condemned, certainly by any who wear an icon of Jesus. The Bishop’s denial of need because of the existence of “structured means of helping,” sounds a great deal like the response of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, when he rejects those begging for help with his cold, “Are there no workhouses; no poorhouses!?” No, actually, Bishop, there are not enough “structured means” to help all who need it.
Being present on the median strips and stop lights is sometimes required.
Thankfully, Pope Francis has, with his voice of sane love, already contradicted his local Bishop. At the beginning of Lent this year he stated that giving to someone in need “is always right,” adding that money should be shared without worrying about on what it may be spent. Amen to that. Religion can be strange. But, I’ll take Jesus, and in this case Pope Francis, over the Bishop in the practice of mine.
On the median, the cold rain starts again, and the tension rises in me. A woman with kids in an old car slows, and rolls down her window. There are tears in her eyes when she recognizes what we are doing. “Thank you,” she says as she drives by. Some cars honk in support.
Still, others shout “Get a Job!” Behind me a driver reaches out the window in my direction and yells something about “Die!” as he speeds away with his kids. These acts of coldness are happening to a group carrying signs like, “Be Kind!” I wonder what it is like for those solitary souls, already beaten down, that must do this daily just for basic survival needs?
The light turns red again and a young construction worker in a pick-up slows. I ask if he wants a leaflet. He rolls his window down, stares at me, and says, “No. You do not want to talk to me about this! I don’t believe in what you are doing.”
“OK,” I say. “I get that. I just hope this doesn’t happen to you.”
“What?” he says.
“I hope you never lose your job, and have to stand out here yourself.”
I expect a sharp response, but he hesitates and doesn’t reply. I think I see a moment of recognition in his face, perhaps of those darker things like job insecurity with which many of us secretly wrestle. He rolls up his window and looks at me blankly.
He knows. I think. He knows exactly what I mean.
The light changes and he drives away. The police come, blue lights flashing. They give us $85 tickets as they have already begun to do to the poor as well.
Our court dates are in June.