Sunday, September 17, 2006

lost opportunity...until the next one

My associate and I were on the Burns Paiute Reservation yesterday, meeting with tribal and child protection officials. We in the state court system are developing relationships with the tribes, long overdue, so as to give life to the spirit of the laws regarding the special ways we are to approach child abuse and neglect cases regarding children who are members of federally recognized Indian tribes.

That’s a six-hour drive from Portland and we went down the night before. Burns, Oregon (get out your map) is in the southeastern part of the state. The Burns Paiute are one of several tribes of Paiute, Indians that inhabited, for the most part, the Great Basin of the West in the Pre-Columbian era.

I have been to Burns several times to train judges and child welfare types. I have even trained there, on the Indian Child Welfare Act. But I had never been on the Reservation before. It was an irony that was opened to me during the meeting and I made mention of this irony (a nice way to characterize such an oversight, such lack of consciousness) to the group. It will not happen, that way, again.

It was a good meeting.

On the way back, about two thirds of the way home, we stopped at a “rest area” on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. It’s a nice spot, down in a deep canyon, on the Deschutes River. It’s a spot where many fishers put their drift boats into the water. Most of the year there are at least three or four pickups with boat trailers parked next to the glorified outhouses that the state has installed for the convenience of those fishers and others, like us, traveling through.

The clearly marked boundary of this island of state land in the sea of the Indian reservation is very near the outhouses and, just on the other side of that boundary, there is usually a group of Indian men sitting. They are drinking, or they have been drinking, and they are just passing the time, peacefully, among themselves. They would be confronted if they crossed over on to the state property, at least if there was some state official (usually a state police officer or a state parks service employee) in the area. If they crossed over very much I am sure that such an official would be called. On the other side of this clearly marked boundary, in “Indian Country,” they are safe. The tribe leaves them be and, it being Indian Country, no state official has the authority to remove them any farther.

Yesterday, for the first time in many stops at this rest area (it’s a road I travel eight to ten times a year) one of them left the group, crossed over the line and approached my associate and me. From appearance he was a full-blooded Indian, short and dark, with classic features. He was also clearly drunk. He greeted us and showed us a basket he said that he had woven, a basket that was perhaps three times as big as a sewing thimble. It was blue and white, pretty good work. He asked if we were interested in buying it.

My associate immediately said “no.” She was adamant and her tone left no room for negotiation. Instead of talking to him more about it I remained silent. He continued to try to talk to us, in a slow and slurred manner, about where we were going and where we lived, trying to maintain contact, not giving up on getting some money from us. When he directly asked for a couple of dollars my associate again, in that same adamant voice, said “no.” Finally, as we got into the car he asked if we had any spare change and she said “no,” again.

I rode along on her “no’s” even though, had I been alone, I know I would have negotiated with him over his basket and paid him far more than the purchase price at the gift store at the Warm Springs cultural center, down the road. I would have even given him the couple of dollars or the spare change he asked for directly, if he had opened with that.

And I am repenting, this morning, for not having done that. The Spirit was all over me, this morning. The pangs I felt, as I went along with my associate’s “no’s” yesterday, have turned into full-fledged cramps.

I almost always give money to pan handlers. I certainly always give money (usually to one of my children so they can deliver it) to the glorified panhandlers who play music or read poetry or sing outside of athletic events or other public gatherings.

There was a panhandler outside a Saturday Market I once frequented who used to get money from me because he sang—terribly—and accompanied himself on a guitar cut out of cardboard and slung on a piece of twine, with the strings drawn crudely on it.

There is a panhandler who regularly works the rest area where I often stop on my way home from work (it’s a 50 mile drive). She knows me well, as does her male counterpart who is there when she is not. People who have approached me in rest areas all over the Pacific Northwest with stories about being out of gas usually get five dollars or so.

I am well aware that many of those to whom I give money will spend it on drugs or alcohol. I am even told that some of the pan handlers I see make a pretty good living standing by the traffic signals at busy inter sections or those that regulate the flow of traffic at free way entrances. I don’t know if this is true. Nor do I know what “a pretty good living” means to those who say this. My understanding is that in modern hobo lore we in Portland are reputed to live on “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

Some of my friends (and some Friends) have seen my style of giving and admonish me for it. Better, they say, to give through established charities to ensure that those who “deserve” help will get it and that the fruit of my charity will be wholesome sustenance, and will not feed an addiction or a life of indolence. We do give to “legitimate” organized charities, of course. And we do volunteer in the “soup kitchen” program at St Anthony’s.

The Spirit moves me to give as I do and that is all I can say to my friends. I sometimes add that the admonitions of Jesus in scripture do not limit giving to the “worthy” (seems like a judgment to me that I should not be making) or that I ensure that what I give is well used. Granted, the scripture certainly talks about giving that meets needs and not giving money, at least in Matthew 26: 31-46, but it is not the scripture but the prompting of the Spirit that puts my hand into my pocket and, this morning, causes me to mourn the loss of yesterday’s opportunity.

It was not only an opportunity in regard to the giving; it was an opportunity in regard to my associate. We had two more hours of car trip in front of us and, had I “purchased” the basket, or just given the money, it would have been a teaching moment or least a discussion moment. She was raised a Catholic and, although she isn’t what she calls a “practicing” Catholic she is very interested in spiritual things. We have often, on these long trips, talked about such matters. Perhaps I had some light for her, or her for me. If so, it was lost, at least until another opportunity arose.

I am sure that many to whom I give money consider me a “mark” or a “touch” but my take is that I am supposed to be a mark, a touch. My take is that regardless of where it goes from the moment of giving, and receiving, there is a message in the transaction for those who have eyes to see. There is a glimpse of God shown when we give unselfishly, in the most ridiculous of circumstances. It is that same thing seen in the smallest and meekest displays of goodness and kindness in the face of and in opposition to the cruelest and most overwhelming evil.

As I sat, this morning, reading my Bible, the Spirit drew me into prayer regarding this incident yesterday. And I was drawn to mourn that I do not have that little basket to look at this morning to inspire me to further acts of futile and meaningless charity in the future. For who is to judge an act of charity futile and meaningless? For that matter, for whom, if for any of the three of us standing there, next to those outhouses, on that dot of white man's land in the midst of Indian Country, would it have been a futile or meaningless act of charity?


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Oh, my friend, thank you for sharing this!

I think your day-after feelings must be very like mine the day after I failed to help the baby bird that had fallen out of its nest.

Thank God we have those feelings and are not merely numb. But oh that we had not missed our opportunity!

I think all one can do, after that, is resume the walk and vow to do better next time.

It is in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus said, "Give to whomever asks." And were I in your shoes, that is the line I'd remind the critics of. I too give what little I can to drunken panhandlers, without judgment. One who does not do so, has no right to judge others, as I understand the matter.

I loved your whole posting and hope you will continue sharing stories like this. They may be hard for you, but they nourish my soul. Bless you, friend.

Johan Maurer said...

From another Big Rock Candy Mountain resident: beautifully said! We share the same perspective, but I could never have said it as well.

Joe G. said...

I'm going to offer a contrarian point of view here. So, if you knew beforehand that giving money to a homeless person might lead them to buy a weapon for later use, would you still give the money?

It's one thing to completely disregard someone and justify it by saying "I'm helping that person to not buy drugs." It's another thing to be kind and respectful and still not give the money if one has a good idea that the person might go and buy another bottle of alcohol.

Saying "no" might also prove utilmately futile, but it is not always due to lack of charity or concern for the person involved. Likewise, I think it's important to neither vilify nor idealize people who are homeless. They don't need our rejection or our pity, but a genuine change in our society that puts human needs as at least as important as financial concerns for private corporations.

Good post and very thoughtful, BTW.