The Unreal Other
I've always liked the "Parable of the Good Samaritan" (Luke 10:25-37), and its moral — do not let rules and regulations stand in the way of doing what is right. Early this year, I listened to a teaching talk by Tara Brach, a teacher of Buddhist meditation and a clinical psychologist. In Questions and Answers, Tara teaches how easy it is to not be affected by news stories on people suffering unemployment, loss of loved ones, or natural disaster:
More and more, in our world, we have a sense of the "unreal others." Unless we are really awake, we don't see the person we're reading about as a real subjective being, we don't have a sense of "the one who is looking out through those eyes or feeling with that heart." How do "unreal others" become "real" to us? We don't violate realness — if we feel a connection, we don't violate it. Our hearts don't get squeezed and pained until it's a "real other." We are innately caring and giving, when we recognize what's happening. The practice that really helps is for people to talk with people who are different — yes, there are differences, but the one who is looking at us experiences the same fears and yearnings and the same deep, deep longing to love and to be loved.
Tara's teaching helped me reinterpret the Good Samaritan story from a "head" perspective about rules and regulations, to a "heart" perspective about empathy and emotional connection. The priest and the Levite did not see the injured man as a "real other." Their hearts had not connected to the pain and humanity of the beaten traveler. Because they had not connected to him — because they let labels and rules get in the way of loving kindness and doing justice — they were not awake to him, or to themselves.
How can we turn a person from an "unreal other" into a "real other"? Only by talking and being around people who are different from us.
In our society, I believe the homeless are our "unreal other." Many people carry misunderstandings and false assumptions about homeless persons — "they're not like me," or "they don't want to work," or even "they're just a bunch of deadbeats." Let me share three stories from my experiences at Greensboro Urban Ministry (GUM) which challenge these views.
- They're Not Like Me — I help lead a group of volunteers who show up at GUM, between 5:30 and 6:00 am every Friday, 52 weeks a year, to prepare breakfast for between 75 and 150 guests. I like to have first-time volunteers at the Friday Breakfast greet guests — a simple handshake, smile, and "welcome!" or "good morning!" Even though this welcoming is common courtesy, I soon realized it had a greater impact on the volunteers than on the guests — in fact, it had an uncommonly deep effect. You see, there is a good chance the volunteers will greet a guest who reminds them of...well, them, and this helps the volunteers realize, "they're just like me."
- They Don't Want to Work — About three years ago, my friend, John Aderholdt, an active Friday Breakfast volunteer, asked me if it would be okay if he offered a day job to our guests. John needed three men to help move his parent's home furniture, and asked for a show of hands. About 45 male guests attended that Friday morning, and virtually all raised their hands. John ended up selecting the three by drawing lots. When I come across someone who doubts the desire of the homeless to work, I share this story.
- They Are... — My friend, Skip MacMillan, is a past Board Chair of GUM and is currently Board Chair of the Interactive Resource Center (IRC), a relatively new agency providing a day shelter — including showers and laundry facilities — for the homeless, coupled with access to training and computers to help find, apply for, interview, and successfully hold jobs. Skip tells of a friend who had certain negative assumptions about homeless persons — and whose views were completely changed, once he volunteered at a GUM Winter Emergency Shelter hosted by his congregation in their church building. Skip's friend saw the dignity and decency of his congregation's homeless guests, shattering his misconceptions.
Until you get personally involved in some way with homelessness or hunger, that homeless or hungry person you read or hear about is still an "unreal other" to you. Let me encourage you to make these issues personal — volunteer at, learn about, or contribute to GUM, IRC, or a similar organization. And as you do so, you will develop an inviolable connection to another, your heart will be squeezed and pained, and that person you're helping will become a "real other" to you.
Todd L. Herman
Additional Resources — Here are some ways to get involved:
Greensboro Urban Ministry
Greensboro Urban Ministry is an ecumenical outreach agency supported by more than 200 congregations representing Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faith traditions. Not only does Greensboro Urban Ministry provide crisis intervention and emergency services through the basics of food, shelter, and clothing, but we also help many individuals and families break the cycles of poverty, hunger, addiction, and homelessness.
Interactive Resource Center
The Interactive Resource Center assists people who are homeless, recently homeless or facing homelessness reconnect with their own lives and with the community at large.
Partners Ending Homelessness
Partners Ending Homelessness encourages public understanding of the causes and conditions of homelessness and leads a strong and stable system of care for individuals and families to reduce homelessness in Guilford County. The organization is a groundbreaking, collaborative partnership that includes over 200 community partners that work to generate housing, strengthen prevention and supportive service efforts, and increase coordination, collaboration and access through the continuum of care in our community.
Shine the Light on Hunger
My friend, Jonathan Smith, of Jonathan Smith & Co. began a family tradition many years ago — making large lighted Christmas balls out of "poultry netting" (more commonly called "chicken wire") and strands of lights to hang from tree branches. That family tradition spread to his neighbors on Madison Avenue in Greensboro, NC, and they made a cause out of it — gathering for fellowship to make the balls, and collecting canned food and money for Greensboro Urban Ministry and Second Harvest Food Bank to help others. These neighbors then expanded this to more of their Sunset Hills neighborhood, and today many people in Greensboro slowly drive through the neighborhood at night to enjoy the beautiful lighted balls and donate money or canned food. Jonathan and his family and friends call this effort "Shine the Light on Hunger."
- For more on this effort, please visit the "Lighted Christmas Balls" blog. Helpful Tip: Jonathan suggests cutting the chicken mesh a little longer than 45" — 46-47" lengths help make the ball more spherical.
Tara Brach is a leading western teacher of Buddhist meditation, emotional healing and spiritual awakening. She has practiced and taught meditation for over 35 years, with an emphasis on vipassana (mindfulness or insight) meditation. Tara is the senior teacher and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. A clinical psychologist, Tara is author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha and the upcoming book,True Refuge-Three Gateways to a Fearless Heart (Bantam, 2012).
- For the "Questions and Answers" talk, please download: http://www.tarabrach.com/audio/2008-06-11-Question-Answer-TaraBrach.mp3. The excerpt on "The Unreal Other" begins around 45:30 in the recording.
- For an index of her teaching talks, guided meditations, podcasts, and video clips, please visit: http://www.tarabrach.com/audiodharma.html
- For more on the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, please visit their web site: http://www.imcw.org/
- If you have the opportunity to hear Tara speak, I strongly encourage you to do so! Most Wednesday evenings, she leads a meditation class from 7:30 to 9:00 pm in Bethesda, MD. Jay Hilbinger (my friend and pastor) and I attended this class in September 2010. For details, please visit: http://www.imcw.org/wednesday-night
The Honor Card
In 1988, artist William Mangum of Greensboro, NC, began lending his artistic and publishing assistance to Greensboro Urban Ministry's struggling fundraiser, the Honor Card program. He created an image called "Not Forgotten." It was warmly embraced and sold 5,000 cards, raising a record setting $52,000 for various outreach programs. Every year since, Bill — who is also an active volunteer at GUM and started GUM's original weekday breakfast, the Wednesday Prayer Breakfast — has donated an original painting, to be used by GUM and other agencies across the state for fundraising to meet the needs of the homeless. During the holiday season, Honor Cards are available for a minimum donation of $5 each. Individuals who purchase Honor Cards send them to friends and family, indicating that they have been honored by a donation to a local outreach agency. All proceeds go directly to each agency. Since 1988, over $3,000,000 has been raised for GUM and other agencies through the Honor Card program.