Who is my neighbour?

pastyI had the following conversation with two friends, well, Mums of my son’s friends, so I’m only just getting to know them. A colleague of one of the Mums was doing the “Greggs run” on the way to work, and saw a homeless man outside the shop. She was moved to want to help him, so she gave him a pasty on her way out and got on the bus. But then, the man ran up to the bus, banged on the window where she was sitting and shouted “This is what I think of your pasty!” And he dropped it onto the ground and stamped on it.

The colleague was shocked and upset, and my friends were outraged at the man’s response. But I found myself unsure how to respond. Why was this reaction so outrageous? Because we think the man should have been grateful? Grateful for something that may not have been what he wanted or needed at that time? Grateful for whatever he can get, beggars can’t be choosers, and all that?

At what point does a person lose the right to decide what kind of help he or she can ask for, accept, or refuse? Surely the answer to that is at no point. Unsolicited help is good to offer, but equally may be refused. We would all prefer to be asked what it is that we want or need, and being homeless doesn’t change that.

Perhaps we are outraged not by the refusal to accept the pasty per se, but the way it was refused? Do we judge the man for being rude? How many other unsolicited pasties has he been offered? Perhaps he is vegetarian, but perhaps we judge that is not acceptable to insist on being vegetarian and homeless? Perhaps he felt judged as the offer of food suggests that he couldn’t be trusted to spend money appropriately? Who is it who decides what is appropriate for an adult to spend money on?

I realise that I have only come up with a load of questions, and no answers. The only realistic answer I have is that we should ask people what they want before we offer, or at the very least, make sure our help is actually an offer that can be refused and not insisted upon. But I didn’t feel able to say this to my friends. I only managed something vague about not knowing what had gone on before and sympathising with hurt feelings.

Meanwhile, my own response to homelessness remains inadequate. I’ve been shocked at how many people I’ve seen on the streets in Sheffield – many more than I ever saw in Liverpool. I buy the Big Issue occasionally (but not always) and I’ve even set up a regular payment to a project that supports homeless people in Sheffield. But I still cycle passed people sitting on cardboard boxes in the pouring rain outside the station and the guy who is always in the subway (under the ring road by Waitrose, if you know it) and use the fact that I’m on my bike as a way to avoid eye contact.

Meanwhile, it’s Christian Aid Week, the annual big fundraising initiative for Christian Aid. This year our theme is ‘loving our neighbours’, from the story of the Good Samaritan, told in Luke 10. The first day of the 7 day reflection asks the question ‘Do you need to expand your understanding of who your neighbour is?’ Yes indeed, not just the families in Bangladesh whose homes are regularly entirely washed away by flooding, but also the man I cycle passed nearly every day in the subway.

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