Anything, Nothing, or Something Well (a #FitchTheHomeless follow-up)

When I was a youth pastor, my students and I volunteered in some sort of ministry or community service capacity every month. We generally connected with local organizations, doing whatever they told us they needed: making chili, serving breakfast, hanging out, collecting toiletries, sorting clothes, washing cars, picking up trash, playing with kids. We didn't generally get as many students out for those events as laser tag or ice skating, but it was always meaningful connecting in the community and learning to step outside ourselves for a bit to love with our hands.

But there was at least one time that we didn't coordinate our serving through an agency, which I look back on and cringe. It was the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, back before that day was well organized. Our church was next door to several hospitals in Pittsburgh, and I thought, Wouldn't it be great to bring food to folks in waiting rooms?

It's not the worst idea in the world, right?

Well, it was and it wasn't. See, I never called ahead to find out if my Super Great Idea would be received in actuality as either super or great. Instead, I just showed up with a bunch of teenagers, juice boxes, waters, rice crispy treats, and a whole mess of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. That we made ourselves. And attempted to pass off to strangers. Who may or may not have been in fragile emotional states since their loved ones were in the hospital and all.

We couldn't get into Children's, because, hi, they don't actually allow random, un-cleared teenagers inside. Two other hospitals actually did allow us to traipse about willy nilly, but can you believe that folks were not especially amped to eat peanut butter sandwiches made offsite and unseen by middle school kids?

How could anyone have possibly foreseen that consequence???

We meant well. Our intent was to be helpful and kind, but good intentions alone will not suffice. It was an exercise in well-meaning-but-foolish naivete. We didn't hurt anyone (that I know of), but we didn't exactly provide a meaningful service, either.

Were our snacks appreciated? Perhaps. Was our presence appreciated in the midst of so much family stress and pain? Maybe not. What about those sandwiches? We made them because we were on a budget, but it was a waste of money and time if most of that bread, jelly, peanut butter hit the trash untouched (except by all of our hands, of course!).

I believe that #FitchTheHomeless is a similar example of the kind of ill-conceived helping that doesn't play out as well in practice as imagination. That doesn't make the filmmaker a bad person. My critique was of the idea, not the person who conceived it (or anyone who shared it).

Never in a million years would I argue that it's not worth doing anything when everything we could possibly attempt could potentially be picked apart and faulted. I never want to cause paralysis or convey that everyone might as well pick up their ball and go home, cuz some hater on the internet is sure you're doing it wrong.

I'm not here for pooping on parades or making anyone feel silly, and if it came across like that, I am sorry. I'm just a media nerd with a penchant for unpacking cultural messages and a desire to esteem people at the margins--but not at the expense of my readers or anyone else.

None of us gets it right all the time. Risk-taking means risking failure and opening ourselves up to critique. Love is messy and sometimes awkward, and answers come more often in shades of grey than black or white. We change our minds and disagree, make mistakes and learn love as we go.

#FitchTheHomeless worked as a bit of corporate sabotage, but it offered a lousy service model. They sought to make Abercrombie & Fitch look the fool, but it's damn near impossible to paint them as a brand for "douchebags" and "date rapists" and then have photos of Abercrombie-clad homeless people be seen in a positive light. #FitchTheHomeless doesn't work as both gotcha brand slander and meaningful altruism. When the service component functions as an ancillary to the smear campaign, the "charity" feels tacked-on and cheap rather than kind or worthwhile. Their campaign missed executing its greater good piece by casting marginalized people (possibly against their will) as symbolic pawns in their corporate take-down.

If Christian privileged people aren’t careful, their problem-solving heroics can easily dishonor the image of God in oppressed people. Most obviously, this occurs when privileged people bypass the crucial stage of “weep with those who weep” listening. This type of listening requires the privileged people to stand in paradigm-shifting, time-consuming and uncomfortable solidarity with oppressed people. Instead, they go straight to the “Let me solve your problem for you” type of non-listening. (Dr. Christena Cleveland)

Doing Something is generally a better strategy than, say, couch-sitting, but "something" isn't the same as "anything," so let's try to Do Something Well, shall we? Our grandiose ideas can take on a life of their own sometimes, and we need people on the ground helping us to see through our own blind spots if we are to truly be part of working together toward the kind of just, positive outcomes we desire.

So by all means, get involved. Let's commit to serving in ways that uphold one another's dignity and help us to learn. But let's ask first, listen well, and assume nothing. Don't be like me, the misguided youth pastor with her peanut butter sandwiches, trying to "help" people who might so much rather be left alone.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions and all that. A simple phone call to the hospital could have helped me to set up a project that supplied actual rather than imagined needs. All I had to do was ask, "How can we best serve patients' families or staff? Is there anything that you need that we could possibly help with?"

Meaning well isn't carte blanche to proceed however we choose or an exemption from critique, but let's never be so afraid to do it it "wrong" that we sit on our hands. Things worth doing well are worth doing poorly at first, but if we'll learn from our mistakes, we'll do better, this time not as Fixers, Savers, or Answer-Givers but kind hands, listening ears, fellow pilgrims, and friends.

After all, we belong to one another in love sincere. We need each other more than we have something to offer. Remembering that might just be the greater good that lights a better way.

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