Recently, on March 12, 2017 the Conway Police Department issued a statement on the increase of panhandlers in the city of Conway. Lieutenant Clay Smith offered a reasonable and clear explanation on the situation stating,
“…a fairly recent Court decision basically voided our city ordinance and made panhandling on street corners legal or within an individuals rights to do.”
The legality of such a decision is for the courts to decide obviously. Our law enforcement personnel who do a great job of serving and protecting our community are taking the right approach in pointing these men and women to the appropriate resources to assist in alleviating a specific need.
While the courts and Conway Police are upholding their responsibilities of determining constitutionality and enforcement respectively, the citizens of Conway have responsibilities as well.
Yes. We. Have. Responsibility.
When you drive down Oak Street and pass one of these panhandlers on the corner, who do you see?
One may say, “I see a hustler.”
Another may say, “I see a guy unwilling to get a job.”
Another may say, “I see a pothead.”
And another will say, “I see someone with a need.”
If I may, when you drive down Oak Street this weekend remember the person you see on the corner is a human being. A human being who is like you and I. What makes him or her a human being is their presence to occupy a space in time and by occupation of that space you recognize their existence. He is a human being because he has sensory perceptions as the cars drive past him and the wind brushes across his arms. She is a human being because she realizes the temperature changes on body. They are human beings because they along with us will at some point share in the transformative experience of death. If I may be so bold, you are standing out on that corner with cardboard in hand.
What responsibility does our city government have regarding the homeless and panhandlers? Our city government must create an environment which those who want to provide benevolence in the form of shelters and food can flourish. I am thankful for Mayor Bart Castleberry who is assembling a task force to address poverty which includes homelessness. Our city missed an opportunity two years ago to significantly address this concern. We have another opportunity which will require the strong participation of the mayor’s office, city councilmen and women, nonprofits, faith groups, and civic organizations. We laud our city being a compassionate and giving city. Such laurels must result in tangible and sustainable solutions which give panhandlers a way to prosper with dignity.
What responsibility do our faith groups have regarding the homeless and panhandlers? Can we complain about not having the resources to address homelessness while we possess the financial means to end homelessness? Speaking to my faith tradition, we have the immediate responsibility to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and we have the equal need to care for the poor, widow, and orphaned.
I state it as an “equal need” because the two great commandments carry equal weight. We are our own worst enemy as we offer people an ethereal hope while not equally offering hope in the present. Have we become so insensitive we will invest millions of dollars to convince someone to believe in Jesus whom they have not seen while wrestling over $50.00 to help a homeless person whom we see?
We have a responsibility to meet the homeless man or woman on the street because in some powerful way Jesus Christ himself is standing on the street corner. Yes, I anticipate the usual cast of characters who will stand up and say the usual stereotypical statements about the poor. Yet the burden of proof is on each person who uses such stereotypes to justify why he or she does not want to experience the fullness of his or her humanity. On the street corner is your opportunity to meet and talk with Jesus Christ.
Finally, we have a responsibility as a city. Let us stop making excuses. With the level of financial power and influence we possess in this city homelessness and panhandling can be addressed. We lack the will to do so for the sake of others. If we can demonstrate through voting the construction of a new high school, Central Landing-which still is not finished, and road improvements, can we not do something powerfully for others?
The panhandlers are a judgement on our city. A visible presence to persons from all over Conway the homeless are here and God wants us to answer their call. These men and women are a visible presence that weakness is within the boundaries of our city. But this discipline can be responded to in a turning towards the homeless and panhandlers, embracing these men and women, and saying,
“Let’s walk together.”
The news yesterday a grand jury will not indict a Cleveland police officer for the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice is very disturbing to me as a Christian, father, and African American. (You can see a video of the event here). In a period when America is in deep discussions over the 2nd Amendment, access to guns, and the relationship between the African American community and law enforcement, this lack of justice on behalf of Tamir Rice demonstrates the need for action beyond words.
Let me first say I am profoundly sorry and sympathize for the Tamir Rice family. A son was playing in his neighborhood and lost his life. As parents we hope our children can play outside our homes, in recreational areas, and enjoy life. We expect our children to come home when we yell down the street, tell them it is time for lunch, and be in the house when the street lights come home. This would not be the case for Tamir Rice. He was playing in the neighborhood with a toy and he lost his life. A mother lost her twelve-year-old son to violence. Violence which came not from the hands of another African American child, gang member, or drug dealer. He lost his life violently at the hands of one who is sworn to execute his duties in a professional and judicious manner. As a father, I believe I would be in a swirl of emotions ranging from profound sadness to rage. Wouldn’t you as a parent?
Tamir Rice was judged on the basis of his size and the possibility he held a real hand gun which he was never given the opportunity to prove otherwise. What does it mean his size warranted his shooting death? My son is an African American seventeen-year-old, standing 6’1’’ and weighs 200 pounds. How is he to be judged? Now stick a gun-toy or real- in his hand, how then is he to be judged?
Now when I listen to the 2nd Amendment crowd I hear these loud overtures to bear arms, I see pictures of guns popularized, affirmed, and even sexualized. What made Tamir Rice’s situation any different? Let’s assume for a moment it was a live hand gun? The 911 caller reported no shots fired. The film demonstrates a boy in the park with a gun. Therefore, what made this situation different? In this national discussion on the right to bear arms in order to protect oneself, individual property, and the possibility of a government encroachment if the 2nd Amendment crowd remains silent on this injustice they have lost moral authority. A cop shot and killed a young boy for simply carrying a gun.
But it is bigger than the 2nd Amendment.
As an African American father with an African American son who is a 6’1’’ 200-pound male, I need to communicate he cannot enjoy his constitutional right to bear arms. The murder of Tamir Rice demonstrates to me I must sit with my son once again and remind him the nation looks at him differently. While people pontificate over the virtues of gun ownership, concealed carry licenses, and open carry to protect themselves from ISIS, I need to tell my son to have no such weapon because “you may be seen as a threat because of your size and be killed by an American!” This is the reality in which I live and I must raise my son to live in as well.
I want my son to succeed in life and flourish. I want him to have greater opportunities than I have If that means telling him never owning a firearm so that his life has the same probability of existence as his counter parts then so be it. I wish desperately others could see life and hear life as we hear it. What I fear though is Tamir will be blamed, statistics on black on black crime will be put forward again, and another life will be implicitly deemed as forgotten.
But Tamir's life like my son's life matters.
Tamir Rice’s black life matters because he is a human being. His life matters because God made him beautiful. It matters because he was playing and pretending to live out his 2nd Amendment right which is supposed to be for all American citizens. His black life matters and he deserves a full hearing in order for justice to be truly served. His life matters because it powerfully reminds me that I must guard my son’s life and let him know he can enjoy nine of the ten amendments as an African American male.
So with all that said, how should we act?
We are gathered here today to celebrate our common dignity as human beings. We are on a journey together which culminates with us standing in the revelation and full glory of the One who gives all humankind dignity and worth. This is a journey and a truth which was penned powerfully in one of the world's most poignant documents. "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
Look among us today. While these words, when originally penned, applied only to a certain demographic of persons in practice, today we see a host of different faces, from different backgrounds, and different life experiences who now realize they too have the God given right to live and love as human beings. Yet no where is this more difficult than when we need to stand with someone who is not like us. When we see the suffering of the "other," I submit to you today we must run on the road of life and stand with men, women, and children who are different than us ethnically, economically, nationally, or socially. In doing so we are ushering in a vision of "Neighborly Love."
So who is my neighbor? Every man, woman, and child who is different than me.
"Who is your neighbor Conway resident?"
There was a certain man who traveled down the 40 Freeway towards Little Rock. On his way, several criminals attacked, stole his goods, and left him in the construction area. Some hours passed and a politician passed on the other side. A traditional family saw the man and chose to continue to Wild River Country. Finally, a person (transgender, illegal immigrant, Muslim, Conservative, Progressive, or home schooler) stopped and helped the man. His wounds were bandaged and he was taken to Conway Regional.
At the hospital the stranger gave a card to the doctor and said, "Make sure his bill is put on my account. Make sure he arrives home."
Which of the three was a neighbor to the injured person?
Now this story maybe familiar to some and new to others.
There are cultures, languages, beliefs, behaviors, economics, and ethnicities which divide us within our city. The issue in the Good Samaritan story was a professional person devaluing another individual on the basis of his "otherness" instead of valuing every person because every person is created in the image and likeness of God. How can I go about loving someone who votes different than me, looks different than me, or believes different than me?
There is a concept in South Africa which can help us through our journey of loving our neighbor. It is the concept of "Ubuntu." Everyone said this with me, "Ubuntu. Ubuntu." What is ubuntu? It is the concept one human being should demonstrate humanity to another. Why? There is the belief there is a universal thread which connects all of us. Because of this interrelatedness and because there is this indestructible and powerful dignity which resides in all of us and transcends all of our racial, economic, and social barriers, we have the opportunity to pause on our human journey to stand with someone else.
I can look at my White brother who is suffering and say because he is a human being I will help him. My White sisters can hear the pain of a Black woman who is grieving over the resurgence of a symbol of age old segregation and slavery, and say because she is a human being I will grieve with her. I can look at my Latino brothers who have not arrived here legally enter into the suffering of a White brother who has lost his home and say because he is a human being I will help him. This is the interrelatedness of life. This is ubuntu. I love you and you love me because we are universally tied together by the eternal dignity conferred on us by God.
So we are on a journey. A journey in which we should all stand with one another. It is a journey in which all human beings should experience what life, liberty, and happiness means in their context. We are neighbors who are to demonstrate mercy, love kindness, and walk humbly in the light of Him who has made us powerful, majestic, creative, and above all given us the capacity to love.