Beggars and panhandlers are a common sight in Berlin, enough to provide me my daily dose of ethical and social quandary. I don’t know whether they are all homeless, or why they are begging. One young man who I frequently see during the day near my metro stop, face down prostrate with his open hands held up, has a sign asking for vegan food. Another older man who has no hands sits in the evenings, arms outstretched. I see the same ones now over time, know their routes and their ‘Spiels’ as they ask for money, deposit bottles, donations for the homeless newspaper, or another request. If I gave every single one a Euro every time they asked, I would indeed go broke pretty quickly. I spend a lot of time thinking about this.
I read several articles about how to deal compassionately and humanely with panhandlers, and the first suggestion is usually to look them in the eye and acknowledge their humanity, even when saying one could not give money. I had mostly positive results with this approach, except a few cases like where one woman shouted me down, calling me a liar when I said I had no money. I am practicing how to be compassionate and loving without putting myself at risk. Some days in Berlin, the cigarette butts, graffiti on every surface, people spitting everywhere, the smell of it all…just makes me want to retire to the countryside far from any other human.
But some days, my heart is so bursting open with joy and love for my fellow humankind that I’m like a walking wound, with no skin — like my heart is so open to the teeming humanity around me that I can barely tell the difference between myself and the armless beggar, or the poor vegan. What I then considered, was just giving them all hugs. A renewable resource, those hugs after-all… The urge arose deep within me to embrace them, acknowledge their humanity, as it still shines through the brokenness of their particular situations. Like those people who hold up ‘Free Hugs’ signs… But that would be crazy to do with homeless people, right? They often stink of excrement, are dirty, they are the reason many people I know try not to touch anything in the metro, keeping one hand ‘clean,’ using only one to grip the poles and overhead handles. Once I, and at least 15 other people abandoned a subway car for another because the stench of rotting human emanating from a homeless man was so overpowering. Our sick, wounded, handicapped, addicted, homeless, jobless fellow humans — for whatever reason, they keep reminding us of our own condition — they’re just farther out on the spectrum. How many of us are one paycheck away from the street?
The Protestant Alte Nazarenerkirche, or Old Nazarene Church in Wedding which was built in 1832, stands in the middle of Leopoldplatz, where almost every other day of the week there is some kind of market or festival. It really is the center of town, the village square. Thousands of people pass by this church daily, if you count the two metro lines running underneath the square, you could get into the hundreds of thousands. And yet on a Sunday after Easter, there were barely 20 people at the communion service at 10 am, including pastor and organ player, and two of them clearly belonged to the homeless community.
There was an organist accompanying the service, the pastor sat down and sang with us as our small troupe attempted to sight-read the hymns. The atmosphere was cozy, welcoming, informal and safe. Chocolate Easter bunnies were laid out on the table set for the after-service coffee hour.
The pastor was young. Very young. And he addressed this issue in his sermon about how difficult it is to be young and openly Christian in Berlin, a city where 60% of residents are non-religious, and only 30% identify as Christian. He described being at parties, events, gatherings or any other place where people under the age of 50 congregate, and what a show-stopper it is to say that one is Christian — much less a minister. I can relate. I went to Seminary myself, and continue to experience the buzz-kill that can occur when it comes up in conversation. It is definitely not cool to be Christian in many circles, that much is clear.
If I had a dollar for every date I’ve been on where, when the topic arises of my having almost been ordained, a lengthy explanation must follow — I could feed that vegan for a week. Despite Joel Olsteen and other highly successful popular “people-who-make-their-living-preaching” folks, we’ll call them, it remains a decidedly uncool profession in many strata of modern society. I’ve learned to deal with the hail of preconceived notions that might come hurtling down upon me when this issue comes up in certain contexts, but it’s still an ongoing project.
The pastor continued in his sermon about how it is not only difficult to openly stand by one’s faith but to act upon it — doing good deeds and living out the Christian precepts of loving thy neighbor is always challenging. He gave the example of how we pass by the beggars and homeless in the streets, and avoid them in the metro because they smell, and yet they are our brothers and sisters. My ears were ringing!
At the end of the service, everyone rose to receive communion. As we stood in a small semi-circle around the altar, across from me I saw the homeless woman who lives on Leopoldplatz, who I’ve also taken communion with at a Catholic church down the street. I’ve often seen half-clothed, semi-conscious and half-covered by some dirty blankets somewhere around Leopoldplatz, but today she was standing upright, sipping from the chalice as I did. To my left was another homeless gentleman who looked to me for guidance on the communion procedure. I looked to the lady to my right, as I was also there for the first time. After dipping my wafer in some juice, and eating it as the others did before me, the pastor closed the circle by taking hands with those standing next to him and saying a prayer. We all followed and as I grasped the dirty hand of my brother to my left smiling, I thought, this works. This is my hug. One step at a time, for now.
Originally published at https://www.church-traveler.com on May 29, 2019.