Sitting in Café Belen, Reflecting on Poverty, Humility and Shame

Here I sit in a popular reposteria, Café Belen, sipping coffee, eating a pastry and writing this in true spoiled gringa fashion. A woman in her late-twenties holding a toddler walks up to the open doors and looks at me imploringly. She is mouthing something and apparently asking for one Córdoba. I shake my head “no,” but feel anguished. Guilty. Uncertain. But by all accounts, it is not good to give money to those begging. It encourages a sense of dependency and a belief in the inferiority of locals to rich foreigners. I’ve been told that buying food for them is no different. But the pain in my gut got the better of me. And when, a few minutes later, an elderly woman entered the café and approached my table, I purchased a pieza del pan for her.

What was it Jesus said? ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me." It feels so bad to turn away. I have so much and clearly, they have little or they wouldn’t be begging on the streets. But it isn’t a healthy relationship. It isn’t good for the human spirit to beg - is it??

It’s so confusing. Traditions of religious mendicants, from Catholics to Buddhists, have viewed the practice of begging for food by holy men and women as humbling oneself before God. The Franciscan friars and Poor Clare sisters, for example, take vows of poverty and rely primarily on charity for their survival. For them asceticism is a doorway into freedom - freedom from consumerism and selfish ambition and freedom for deep service and total reliance on God’s mercy.

How is begging outside of such religious contexts any different? Does it somehow shift from humbling to shaming?

There is a critical, but often misunderstood difference. Humility is a recognition of our limitations and weaknesses, our dependency on God’s love, and our submission to Divine power/wisdom. Humility keeps my ego in check and lets me know that I am no better than anyone else. Shame is the belief that I am unworthy, unacceptable, incapable, impotent, and an army of other  self-negating adjectives. Shame tells me I am less than (not equal to) others, and renders me unable to accept love.

Where does this little reverie leave the poor young woman and her baby? I don’t know. I don’t have the answers here any more than I did in Seattle when I’d drive by homeless folks with cardboard signs on the side of the road. I’m hoping that asking the questions in a new place, with new faces, and applying my beginners mind – the only kind I have here – will illuminate new connections impossible to detect in one’s single-dimensioned homeland. 

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Comment by Clem Gerdelmann on 5th mo. 16, 2013 at 6:36am

Perhaps the reaction "That's a shame" gets at, humanly as opposed to humanely for "Endangered Species Day", what traditionally has been at stake for Islam's care of and Christianity's preference for the poor? And it's similarly disgusting that God's sovereignty, as opposed to national sovereignty, and abundant generosity, as opposed to capitalism's scarce resources, is a poor excuse for human solidarity.

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