Walking out of the taqueria, a man hollered from across the parking lot.
When I didn't turn around, he hollered again.
"Eh! Habla espanol?"
"Solamente pocito," I explained.
He launched into a long explanation (all in Spanish) that I only partially understood. However, it was clear that he was asking for money.
Every time someone asks me for money, I struggle.
Part of me wants to hand over money, part of me thinks it best (or should I say easiest) to defer to our food pantry, part of me is offended that someone would think that they can not work and then ask me for my hard earned money.
But the nagging feeling when I leave, whether I've given money or not, is the fact that I truly don't know what that person is going through.
Is he a drug user? ...How is he ever going to get help with his addiction?
Is he undocumented? ...How do you find work when you're undocumented?
Did he have a felony? ...Has he lost all hope because of the difficulty of getting a job after being released from prison?
Is he really trying to find a job and can't, but has a family to feed?
I have no desire to enable anyone. But I want to help if the need is legitimate.
As I walked away from the man, I couldn't help but wonder who his "community" is. Does he belong to a church? Who does he know in his neighborhood? Is he connected with other friends and family? If he's not working, does he volunteer anywhere? Who does he talk to? What resources does he have to help him work toward improving his life?
Where do our community systems break down?
In many urban communities I know, the goal often becomes safety and self-preservation...and thus isolation. After all, rumor has it that inner city communities are "bad." So, they (just like the rest of us) buy into the rumors and believe that everyone around them falls into the "bad" category. So...in order to stay away from "riff-raff" they stay inside and rarely talk to their neighbors.
The reality is that there are other good people in the neighborhood who want good things for themselves, their community, and their children as well. The only opportunity for relief in urban communities, we have been convinced, is for people from outside of the community to go in and teach, help, etc.
I can't help but think a more effective approach for people wanting to "help" would be to focus on assisting in organizing communities--connecting with people in the communities...and then helping them connect to each other. Connected people...organized people...are relational, help each other, hold each other accountable, and challenge the systems that oppress them.
People in the community have a better idea what is wanted and needed in their community. Are we listening to the community?
As I walked away, I saw the man approach the next person. Though I could make assumptions about who he is and his ambition, work ethic or lack thereof, I continue to wonder...
Do people in the community truly want hand-outs...or is that the only way they feel they are able to meet their needs?