Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 3, 2003
Look into the face and see the soul
Whyte Avenue is a place in Edmonton where one can find a lot of attention-grabbing people. It has its own denizens and some of them remind me of people I met in bigger cities like Toronto and Vancouver.
"Got some spare change?" is a familiar plea.
Once during a Vancouver summertime, I explored downtown Robson and Granville Streets and came upon a man lying on the pavement. He had a sign beside him saying, "PWA - person with AIDS - need some spare change."
The man looked really sick.
My first instinct was to shell out some coins. But I changed my mind. Instead, I bought a cup of soup and a sub sandwich, left them beside him and walked away.
That night I wrote a letter to my friend Sister Lucille and told her about my first two days in Vancouver. About a week after, she wrote back to me saying, "Young man, you better be careful and realize that you don't have a job. You're a student. I'm not saying what you're doing is wrong. It's always right to help people in need and there are a lot of them in that city."
I kept what she said in mind because I agreed with her. In the ensuing days I met more and more panhandlers on the streets.
But how do you react to panhandlers? Do you easily give what they are asking for? Or do you agree with one Toronto politician who thinks panhandling should be declared illegal? Or do you agree panhandlers - especially during winter - are not mentally fit and are not able to decide responsibly for themselves?
To walk past them and simply ignore them seems to be the most convenient thing to do because some of them get the message: You don't want to help them or give them anything.
Why should I be obliged to part with my hard-earned money? They will just buy smokes, booze or drugs.
Let's face it. Some of them do. But let's also not forget that some of them don't.
As good Christians or simply as conscientious persons we are bothered by the fact there are panhandlers on the streets. We're living in a First World country after all.
So some people give some change and sometimes more. Does that really help them?
On the same note, have we ever tried to stop, look at them and try to see beyond the begging hand, to look them in the face and remind ourselves they are also human beings like us?
The 21st century French moral philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called them the "Face." For him, the human face is very powerful - though the one that stays most naked of all the human body parts. We communicate more effectively through our faces.
He argues that in the nakedness of the human face is an uprightness, candour and honesty mixed with defencelessness. So it is accessible to tangible and immediate contact to the realities outside the realm of the human person. Suffice to name it as the gateway to the reality of a human being.
Levinas believes that the human face mutes the words but eloquently and effectively communicates what is inside the human person by employing the power of silence, by employing the power of transformative staring.
The transformative stare of the Face appeals, "Help me. I am in need."
Jesus said, "When you do it to the least of my brethren, you did it unto me."
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