Bread, truth, wine, dreams

Living in an urban area again has forced upon me that old dilemma, what to do when confronted with beggars asking for money. There aren't actually a lot of beggars here in Hong Kong, compared with other cities, but the ones I do see are heartbreakingly sad—a bone-thin mother holding a disabled son, for instance, or an old man with a disfigured face and only one leg.

I'm new enough here that I really have no idea what the social support systems are like in HK—are there publicly funded homes for disabled people? Are there charity-supported homeless shelters? Where do hungry people get food?

My response to these beggars is a little different than it has been in the past. Maybe because these situations seem so obviously desperate, or maybe because everything is so new that I'm not immune to such sad scenes yet, but whatever the case, I find myself giving whatever money I have readily available. And I don't feel at all conflicted about it, as I've been in past situations, unsure if it's the smartest way to help or if the money will be spent in the ways I imagine.   

In January 2007 I participated in a humanitarian trip to the Dominican Republic, where my role was to bake with communities in communal, wood-burning ovens and to do repair work on those ovens. I must admit that prior to the trip I didn't know what would be accomplished by these bakes, and I felt a little like the kid who just sits on the sidelines, watching the team go to the finals, glad to be along but not quite sure how she got there, and afraid to say anything lest they notice that she doesn't really belong and send her home. The nurses, the folks helping to start a cooperative—they were the real stars of this show. But even the nurses, with all their donations of incontinence pads and insulin readers—wouldn’t it be more beneficial to just send the money that it costs to transport this group of good-hearted souls and all their stuff?

But I went, along with my stuff. I baked, I listened and I taught, I tried to understand people's questions about the ovens, I offered what knowledge I had, I smiled, I took pictures, and amazingly enough, I watched something happen when communities came together around an oven, eating and talking and sharing. Oh, right. Duh. I've staked my life on this belief that something happens when we eat together. And you get more bang for your buck when you prepare the food together as well. How did I ever doubt that baking with and for people would foster community and create a space for planning, dreaming, and discovering one’s own capacity? 

I don't know the long-term effects of our trip almost two years ago, don't know if any more students are now able to attend school, or if a few more women hold their heads up with the dignity of earning their own money. Just like I don't know what impact it has when I drop a few coins in a beggar's cup, with no control over how that money is spent. But that's not really the point of those coins. I'm under no illusion that a few dollars here and there will solve anything for anyone, will address the systemic challenges of poverty, just like one trip can't really solve anything.  

But when one particular person asks me, another particular person, for help, I believe they are asking for money, yes, but also for my presence, my recognition of a shared humanity. And so to drop a few coins in, along with a look full in the eyes and a smile, or to fly to another country just to bake some bread, is really the same thing—an offering of presence.  It may not, certainly will not, solve the larger problems. But it helps to maintain humanity, both mine and theirs, and contribues to, as Pablo Neruda says, “the building of a community, the changing of the conditions which surround mankind, the handing over of mankind’s products: bread, truth, wine, dreams.”

1 comment:

Krissie said...

I think you are right on. I think that making a difference in the world has a lot more to do with changing our overall attitude, and less to do with each individual "drop in the bucket", and I liked how you phrased it, about giving your presence. There is a great website I came across for the holidays called adventconspiracy [dot] org. Among other things, it also mentions giving the gift of your presence as opposed to spending a lot of money on an item.