Saturday, February 13, 2010

Begging: It's not what you think

This month marks one year that I have been giving time to this blog. I thought I would ocassionally rerun a few of what I think are my more interesting posts.This one was posted very early so I don't think many people saw it.



So I'm going to test the waters of this new baby blog. (Now there's a mixed metaphor.) I want to try to figure out what to include in this indulgent page of pixalation about ME.

I have had some serious ponderings this week about an incident that happened to me a few years ago. The occurrence was brought back to mind by a discussion about the movie Slumdog Millionaire. I saw the movie a few weeks ago and thought it was very good. The ending was sappy and melodramatic and felt dislodged from the rest of the film which was not at all sappy. Despite any agenda it may have that I could disagree with, the film is worth seeing, especially for any American who has never been away from the cozy comfort and privilege of the United States of America. It's good to know, in person or vicariously, what some of the rest of the world is like. It helps to make us more aware, even momentarily, of our own blessings and advantages.

I know a number of people who are or have been missionaries in underprivileged places. My husband was in Nigeria for a short time and our son is currently in South America. (Not as a missionary but as a charitable worker.) Through the experiences of these people I have learned things that correspond with what was depicted in the above mentioned movie. My experience was a bit different and I thought I would relate it here for you now.

A few years ago my teenage son and I went to Europe when he was playing in an orchestra doing a concert tour and I was a chaperone. The movie caused him to also recall the following incident and discuss it with me again the other night.

Our concert tour ended in Rome, Italy. There we saw beggars the likes of which we had never seen anywhere else. The pathetic people begging in the glorious city of Rome (and just steps from the gates of the Multi-Billion Dollar City -the Vatican) make the American beggars holding cardboard signs look like posers. Like - "go to school and learn how to be a real beggar!" -in Rome. No one had really prepared us for the beggars there. The tour guide gave them passing mention I think. I have always had a policy to never give a beggar money. When I come across one here, I will buy him lunch or a bag of groceries but never hand out money. In Rome I continued with this philosophy, handing out water bottles or food. These items were never received with much gratitude. Clearly the people with their hands out only wanted the lucre. The beggars were mostly gyspy types. Though the heat was well in the 90's F, the people were wearing many layers of clothing. They were always stationary on some corner or on the edge of the street. I never saw any coming or going. They were just there and then disappeared at the end of the day. I saw young women with babies. Come to think of it I never saw a man. With one exception. I saw a young man with club hands and club feet on a homemade board with little wheels pushing himself around the piazzas all day. In the evening, in Piazza Navona, I saw him again and since it was my last night, I spent my last two Euros and bought him a sandwich. He was not too thrilled. About an half an hour later I happened to see him again and he was using the nubbins of his club hand to check the messages on his cell phone which was on a string around his neck. He snapped the cell phone closed and tucked it back down the neck of his shirt.

But back to the "incident". The most disturbing beggar I saw, and that my son also saw, was an older lady. She was at least 60ish but who knows. She was standing on a busy street corner with her many layers of clothing, holding out a cup in the classic begging style. What was so shocking was her head....her head. She stood holding her head out, face to the pavement so that all could see the top of her head.

She had been scalped. Recently, freshly. It just dumbfounded me and I presume everyone else. I couldn't comprehend it. What happened to her? Why is she like that? Is that a disease? And like everyone else I rushed on by in horror. My son says she was crying. I confess I didn't see any tears and I only vaguely recall her surroundings. I'm not sure if she was alone or if there was a woman companion. My absorption of it was blurred by the sight of her head and the thought of her pathetic situation.

But why am I recalling this now? Because I learned later from a friend living in Europe that the condition of this poor woman was most likely caused by her own "family" as a way to make her more able to elicit sympathy and therefore more money from the tourists. Like the children in Slumdog Millionaire.

This week my thoughts turned to something else. My reaction. It makes me recall the story of "The Good Samaritan" in the Scriptures. I have heard it countless times. I've told it to my children. It's the story of a man who is beaten and robbed on a road and left for dead. Two different people see him but rush by without helping. Only the Samaritan stops to help the wounded man. Every time I have heard the story I have thought that I would most certainly not be like the two that passed by without helping. Of course, like the Samaritan, I would have compassion and stop to help in a similar situation.

In Rome, I saw this sad woman and I may have just as well sucked air in a gasp, covered my mouth and backed away. Because that is what my mind did. And then with my feet I passed by. I went to Trevi Fountain, ate gellato, and bought bottles of wine to take home. Not quite like the Samaritan.

I know. What could I have done? I'm certainly glad I didn't give her money because it would have went straight to the evil perpetrator of her assault. Could I have tried to persuade her to go to a medical facility? Probably not. I don't know. Maybe? Could I have taken her to a cool indoor place and given her respite? I don't know.

But at the very very least....at the micro least...I could have stopped and looked her in the eye and given her a word of kindness. This lady, probably someone's mother, grandmother. I could have taken her hand and spoken a prayer for her. But I rushed on by and my horror only added to her pain and humiliation.

I'm not trying to romanticize the situation. I know the reality is that none of that would probably have worked. Maybe she wasn't even a "nice" person much less a gentle grandma. But no one should be treated that way and put on the street to beg coins from rich self-absorbed tourists.

So, I got that off my chest. Any thoughts? What kind of beggars have you encountered?

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