Why I taught my kids to call our homeless neighbors ‘Peace Men’

In typical Seattle fashion, after a few days of sunshine, the rain returned. On my drive back from Costco, the traffic ahead of me slows to a stop, the rain drumming hypnotically on the windshield. I wonder if I will be able to pull it off. I count the cars ahead and study the timing of the stoplight. I get ready just in case.

I grab one of the pre-made sandwich bags from my driver’s side seat, filled with cough drops, a power bar and a travel size pack of tissues. I seize an orange from the Costco box in the backseat and some cash from the center console. Looking up as traffic begins to move again, I see him in the center divide. The freeway overpass shields him from the rain falling vertically but not from the wind that brings it horizontally. I drive forward slowly, then stop in front of him, rolling down my window. “Peace be with you,” I say as I pass him the sandwich baggie.

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“Peace be with you,” I say as I pass him the sandwich baggie.

In my family, we call them Peace Men. When my sons were younger, they knew these men and women were without a home, but I did not want “homeless” to be a word in their unfiltered vernacular. Would they be asking anyone who looked disheveled or wore unkempt clothes if they were homeless? I wanted to teach my children respect and honor for these neighbors who had captured my heart years before they were born. Strapped down in their car seats in the backseat, these toddlers would flash a peace sign to the men on the freeway off-ramp.

Growing up my home life was unstable. We moved every year, as my parents faced eviction or my mother escaped my father’s abuse once again. I still have nightmares of having to leave my home. There were several times in my teen years, after my parent’s divorce, that my mother kicked me out of the house, despite pulling off straight A’s and contributing to the monthly bills with my after-school job. I would rely on friends until she decided she had room for me once again. There were months in college, after the student loan and scholarship money ran out, that I took up house-sitting jobs until disbursement time came around again. I slept in my car between jobs.

My younger sister Sara did not fare as well. She spent years on the street. I don’t know which came first, the drugs or homelessness. Either way, she was 14 years old and looking for someone to love her. She slept in doorways, crashed in squats or pooled money with friends for one night in a Motel 6. She returned home when she found herself gravely ill.

Pope Francis was right: It was not my place to judge how someone would spend the money I gave them.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis said we should give money to the homeless without concern for how they spend it. My ears perked up. After I finished grad school and got married, life became stable enough that I began ministry work with the homeless population in Los Angeles. Not giving cash had always been the boundary I set for myself. I would go to the D.M.V. with homeless people to help them get an I.D., take them out for Starbucks, even invite them to my home for dinner. There was something different about giving up control of my hard-earned cash. But why? When I needed money, I was always grateful for those who gave it. And of course, the pope was right: It was not my place to judge how someone would spend the money I gave them.

Pope Francis says by opening ourselves to the poor, we are allowing ourselves to be evangelized by them. In “The Joy of the Gospel,” he says: “We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.”

This opening up of myself has changed my heart. Instead of putting my head down when I hear someone ask for change, I hear myself respond, “Of course!” I see a light in their eyes when I respond in such a way—to be seen, just as we all want to be seen.

Instead of putting my head down when I hear someone ask for change, I hear myself respond, “Of course!”

I see this opening in my children, too. They search their pockets for ways to help—a lucky penny, a piece of fruit. These treasures given so sweetly from a child are received as precious gifts from our neighbors.

One day while waiting in line to enter the theater with my family, I heard the voice of a young woman panhandling the line ahead. “My name is Sara. Can anyone help me with some change for dinner?”

Sara, the same name as my sister.

“Hi, Sara!” I hollered out. “Of course!”

I passed some cash to my oldest son, who is 7. “Go give this to Ms. Sara,” I said. He ran over cheerfully to give her the money.

“Here you go Ms. Sara,” he said. She thanked him, tears in her eyes.

I said a silent prayer for this Sara and then one of thanksgiving for my own sister, now clean, married, mother of four, loved beyond belief.

•••

Back in my car, in the rain, under the freeway overpass, thoughts of my sister, of my own struggles are close as I hand the homeless man the baggie of treats along with some cash. “Peace be with you!” I say.

“Whoa, thanks!” he says, immediately unwrapping a cough drop, popping it into his mouth and closing his eyes to savor the relief on his sore throat. “I’ve had the worst cold. This feels great,” he says opening his eyes. He looks at me, “Hey, you’re my sister!”

He must have mental health issues, I think to myself. He thinks I am his sister. Then I see him as he sees me. I nod to the Christ I find in him. “Yes, I am, brother.” My heart opens, receiving the love given to me through this stranger—a stranger to whom I am intimately tied.

“Peace be with you,” he says, his eyes fixed on mine, as the cars behind me begin to honk.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Richard Bell
1 month 3 weeks ago

I thank God that our author survived homelessness in her childhood. But generalizing her personal experience seems risky. I have many questions about her essay. Here are three:
1. “In my family, we call them Peace Men. . . . I did not want ‘homeless’ to be a word in their unfiltered vernacular. . . . I wanted to teach my children respect and honor for these neighbors”.
Q: Regarding the possible cost of teaching this honorific euphemism, might it fail to strengthen the child’s understanding that such men need succor and fail to strengthen the child’s desire and sense of duty to succor them?
2. “Not giving cash had always been the boundary I set for myself. I would go to the D.M.V. with homeless people to help them get an I.D., take them out for Starbucks, even invite them to my home for dinner. There was something different about giving up control of my hard-earned cash. But why? When I needed money, I was always grateful for those who gave it. And of course, the pope was right: It was not my place to judge how someone would spend the money I gave them.”
Q: The near unanimous opinion of specialists in ministering to the homeless is against cash handouts, as cash handouts enable self-abusive behavior practiced disproportionately by them, so why do you think that the pope was, of course, right?
3. “I hand the homeless man the baggie of treats along with some cash. ‘Peace be with you!’ I say. ‘Whoa, thanks!’ he says.”
Q: Why not say, “The peace of Christ be with you!”? (I have a friend who gives a bit of cash to a beggar just to get his personal attention and then, while enjoying his personal attention, tells him about Christ. My friend has been giving alms this way for more than 20 years and says he can think of no better.)

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