Tuesday, March 13, 2018


As the middle aged couple exited upscale La Farine Bakery on College Avenue, a disheveled elderly man sitting on the sidewalk with a paper cup between his feet greeted them with a friendly “Hello,” in a tone that suggested he knew them. 

Neither of the couple responded, but as they walked by, one of them said, “Who is he?” and the other replied, “I don’t know, just some homeless guy.”

The old man shouted, “Don’t call me homeless!”

How convenient we find it to label and dismiss our fellow human beings with a thoughtless adjective: homeless, druggie, right-winger, racist, lefty, egoist, narcissist and hundreds of other nouns and adjectives uttered pejoratively. I confess that I have been guilty of such labeling in several of my politically directed blog posts.  I regret it, for to do so is to be intellectually lazy, to fail to make the effort to see beyond labels and to acknowledge that usually there is some good even in the persons I may passionately detest.

Having volunteered some years ago at a charity which provides Saturday evening meals to hungry people from the Berkeley streets, I had the opportunity to meet and chat with some of them. They were living on the streets. They were indeed homeless.

But they were more than that.

I met a professor who had a Ph.D. in economics,  a corporate executive, a mechanic, a school teacher, a construction worker and many others who had for one reason or another fallen upon hard times. Also at these meals usually there were teen-age boys and girls who were victims of physical and emotional assault and had fled their tormentors, often their parents or other relatives.  And of course there were drug and alcohol addicts, coming in from the streets for a hot meal, perhaps the only nourishing meal of their day or week.

They were all our fellow human beings. All of them at one time had parents who in most cases nourished and loved them, teachers who endeavored to educate them, employers who trusted and depended upon them, and many of them had themselves parented and loved and cared for their own children.

If we take a minute or two to contemplate the lives, activities, endeavors, employment, education, contributions, and family life of our dearest friends and neighbors and then dare to empathize with the men, women and children camped out under the freeways, we are compelled to accept that dwelling in those tents and under those tarps are people who in better times enjoyed comfortable lives similar to those of our friends and neighbors. They could have been our friends and neighbors. 

In our social lives it is so easy to define ourselves simplistically and unrevealingly:
        “Hello, my name is Kerry. I am so glad to meet you.”
        “I’m Bob.  What do you do, Kerry?”
        “I’m a lawyer.  And you?”
        “I’m a doctor.”

What have Bob and I learned about each other?  Really nothing. We’ve comfortably hung labels around our necks. If we really are interested in a new acquaintance, we should do as Joseph Ciza, a nurse who risks his life in war torn areas of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo does.  When asked “What do you do,” he responds, “Do you want to know what I do, or do you want to know who I am?”

That old man sitting on the sidewalk does not have a home.  But don’t dehumanize him by hanging the homeless label on him. 

Imagine the many possibilities of who he is.

(Thanks to Michael Barram, Ph.D., Professor of Religion at St. Mary’s College and author of Missional Economics, Biblical Justice and Christian Formation, and Arthur Ammann. M.D. author of Lethal Decisions, The Unnecessary Deaths of Women and Children from HIV/AIDS for their thought provoking remarks which moved me to write this blog.)

©Kerry Gough 2018