My friend Julie works for AIDS Saint John- a non-profit organization that, among other valuable services, offers contraceptives, clean syringes, sterile crack pipes and hugs to the neediest and most desperate people of my city. On any given weekday, there’s an ongoing parade of folks (mostly intravenous drug users and sex trade workers) trudging up and down the grimy stairs to the little second floor office that AIDS Saint John calls its home. Julie, it seems, knows each one by name. She knows them- not as statistics of a broken social system, not as prostitutes and drug addicts- but as people. She knows their struggles. She is well acquainted with their stories and she cares immensely.
I once asked Julie if she ever became frustrated at the fact that AIDS Saint John (and so many other non-profits at work in our city) seem to offer mostly bandaid solutions to a social system in need of major transformation. As it turns out, she is frustrated. In fact, her response to my question was the first time I’ve ever seen her angry. According to her, if we were to directly address the social injustices that give rise to things like drug abuse, there wouldn’t be any need for an organization like AIDS Saint John (or, for that matter, food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters).
Like Julie and so many of you who are reading this blog, I too am well aware of the inadequacy of what we call “bandaid solutions.” In fact, I’d be tempted to do away with them altogether were it not for the fact that Jesus seems to have a certain fondness for them. Take, for example, the parable of the good Samaritan- that Sunday school story that Jesus offers to illustrate how one ought to go about loving one’s neighbour. You know it well, I’m sure: a man on a journey from Jericho to Jerusalem gets mugged by bandits and is left bloodied and half-conscious by the side of the road. Two people walk past- first a Levite and then a priest- but neither of them take the time to see if he’s even still breathing. Finally, a third man comes along- a Samaritan, as a matter of fact- who not only stops for the wounded traveller but takes the time to bandage his cuts and accompany him personally to an inn, promising the innkeeper to cover all of the costs himself. This, according to Jesus, is what it means to be a true neighbour to another.
But a clever person might respond, “Well, Jesus, that Samaritan certainly was very well-meaning but don’t you think that all he did was offer a bandaid solution? Don’t you realize that there are much broader social issues that give rise to banditry on the Jericho road? That Samaritan would have better invested his time and money in seeking a political or economic solution to this larger, systematic problem instead of squandering his time and money to help one, loan victim of a mugging.”
I hate to admit it, but our imaginary interlocutor makes a valid point. By the same logic, the rich man from another one of Jesus’ parables was right to ignore the poor and sickly Lazarus at his gate. Lazarus, after all, is just one man- a solitary beggar. Let him be. If the rich man wished to exercise true compassion, it would have been best for him to invest his considerable resources in dealing with the broader social issues that cause people like Lazarus to be homeless and sick in the first place. So, with that said: Is it possible that Jesus’ teaching about loving ones neighbour through acts of basic compassion is nothing more than a sentimental advocation of bandaid solutions? And if so, why would Jesus still have us do them?
In response to this question, let me offer an educated guess: Jesus would have us engage in so-called “bandaid solutions” (or, as the church has historically called them, “good deeds”) because the poor, the sick, the hungry and the homeless are not merely variables in a larger social and political problem. They are people- men and women formed in the image of God. Indeed, they are our neighbours and deserve to be treated as such. When they are lonely, we must welcome and befriend them. When they are hungry, we must feed them. When they are thirsty, we must give them something to drink. It doesn’t matter whether or not such individual acts of kindness are solving the overall problem of poverty. Such benevolent acts humanize the people whom we are helping and, perhaps just as importantly, humanize us. Therefore, it’s never a waste of time or money to have lunch with a homeless man- to sit with him over a coffee and a sandwich to talk politics or sports. It’s never a waste of time to teach the illiterate teenage son of the single mother next door how to read. It’s never a waste of a church’s volunteer resources to offer a free weekly meal that the poor (or anyone, for that matter) are welcome to attend.
Once, my wife and I were walking along Brunswick Street when a mentally ill, homeless man whom we both know by name reached out and asked Jasmine to touch his hand. “I feel like I’m disappearing,” he muttered in a trembling voice, “I just need to know that I’m real!” Jasmine reached out, held his hand for a few brief seconds, all while looking into his eyes. After a few moments had past, both of them let go and, much to my surprise, the man looked relieved. He thanked her for the kind gesture and then let us go on our way. This is why we engage in good deeds! This man has been ignored for most of his life- blending in as a piece of inanimate scenery on a busy city street. No wonder he felt that he was losing touch with his very own sense of existence and humanity. By engaging in good deeds, we help to humanize people like our friend- recognizing that they are not social problems or statistics but beloved creations of God.
By all means, write letters to your member of parliament and city council. Attend street protests and work with politicians and community development groups to seek political and economic solutions to poverty. But, while doing so, be sure not to forget the humanity of the people whom you are trying to help. The victims of poverty are men and women with names, faces and stories. Being a good neighbour means getting to serve and, more importantly, know them. There is indeed a place for bandaid solutions.
By Terence Chandra