Lazarus to the table

Mary Chin, March 2023

Person with umbrella

  • CHOICES

    Someone is going hungry. Luke the evangelist calls him Lazarus. Du Fu 杜甫 laments that skeleton frozen on the street. What do we do?

    A. Do nothing.

    B. Feed him occasionally.

    C. Feed him and keep feeding him.

    D. Bring him to the table to share the bounty.

    This is a multiple-choice question. Let’s choose D.

    C is the mistake most common, with the best intentions. That is how generations after generations Lazarus is kept under the table. There should have been no Lazarus at all. Lazarus is man-made.

    L’Arche as a model

    Henri Nouwen’s The Road to Daybreak: a Spiritual Journey introduced his readers to L’Arche, which redefined our classic understanding of ministries and charities. While the wider society can’t be more precise about a person’s intellectual faculty, L’Arche draws no lines. Everyone in the house lives, works, plays and prayers as peers. The clientele is not treated as ‘the others’. 

    Tested and proven, L’Arche is poised for her diamond jubilee. The concept remains a lonely signature of L’Arche. Except isolated pockets of people living out fully integrated communities, most ministries and charities remain highly polarized and deeply hierarchical, featuring sharp minister-clientele contrasts and staunch identification between who’s serving and who’s being served. With the best intentions, regarding the people we serve whether as subjects or objects is reducing. It reduces the people we serve. That reduces ourselves as well.

    We’ve been programmed

    That differentiation leads us back to the biblical story of The Rich Man and Lazarus. For generations we have been programmed to do better than the rich man, that by feeding Lazarus generously we would be spared from the fires of hell. A rethink is overdue. How about bringing Lazarus to our table instead? 

    ‘the poor and the marginalized’

    The fruits of charity schools, hospitals and other missions are not to be discounted. Myself a produce eternally grateful. I shudder, however, at over-used references to, ‘the poor and marginalized’, as the poor and marginalized become popular targets, drawn to like magnets by well-meaning folks looking to boost their philanthropic or ministerial profile. 

    Don’t some of us customarily borrow ‘the poor and the marginalized’ to muster a sense of gratitude? “God is good. Thank God. (I’m not like them.)” Don’t some of us like to borrow ‘the poor and the marginalized’ as an adjective to praise how good someone is? Apparently some memorials and eulogies can’t go without mentioning how kindly the person cared for ‘the poor and the marginalized’. 

    Yet when it comes to ‘the poor and marginalized’ folks don’t identify, “I’m not Lazarus!” And then when it comes to taxing the rich the same folks claim to be poor. So do good people by default identify as neither the (inferior) poor nor the (filthy) rich? When asked who am I would, “I’m neither Joe nor Lucy,” be an acceptable answer? 

    Without that character under the table will folks lose their identity, and become nobody? If `the poor and the marginalized’ becomes an entity we devote ourselves to but do not identify with, do we not start wondering? 

    GENEROSITY

    I developed an allergy to compliments on how generous a donor is. We have been programmed to praise givers as generous, haven’t we? On the standard moral CV giving alms is good and not giving is bad, and giving more is better than giving less. The reality is my donations measure not my generosity but my sense of security. How much pension do I need? How many lives do I save for? How many villages do I think I’m feeding? How many illnesses do I ready for? 

    Overwhelmed by one-way, glossy publicités and donation drives, I feel lost. I’m not a cow, and I’m not lactating. Charities are my hands and feet doing I wanted but malsituated to do. So why am I assigned that passive, one-way, remote role of an absentee donor? Even in the corporate domain don’t shareholders attend annual meetings, with voting rights

    easy formula

    Rebalancing my portfolio as a donor, the formula is easy. Without reservation I will support shelters or rehabs where I may occasionally check-in for a bed; I will fund meals where I may dine at the table; I will fund shower facilities which I may drop in for a wash. 

    The point is if I don’t like to go on bunk beds why should anyone be conditioned to one? In case bunk beds are all our resources can afford, who am I to be excused? What for run services if I pack people on bunk beds then I myself retreat to a protected, exclusive space upstairs? 

    When can we release Lazarus from under the table? 

    If I walk into the bagel shop and the servers readily recount my preferences and lovingly make me my favorite breakfast, can I forget that individuals queuing for meals have preferences too? 

    If folks for the mildest discomfort deliberate on whether to see a chiropractitioner, an osteopath, a physiotherapist or an acupuncturist, do I sum up as mental health the diverse needs of the communities on the streets? 

    If prisoners’ feet smell no more than yours and mine, why is the washing of their feet spotlighted and televised on Maundy Thursdays in the Christian tradition? I’ve also been asked, “Do you see Christ in the homeless?” A very Christian question, just painfully discriminating. Where does that question come from? A Christian either sees Christ in persons, or sees not. 

    If I visit people at hospices and care homes failing to appreciate the perfect symmetry between their dependence for care and the toddlers’ dependence for care, I may as well not go. 

    If I’m closed to the possibility of a similar diagnosis, I violate the solidarity and I can no longer claim to have ever been in cancer service. 

    Downtown Eastside (DTES), reputed as Canada’s poorest postcode, is the place I understand as the nation’s dumping ground. People unwanted for whatever reason end up there. With the best intentions caring friends cautioned of safety, pleading, “Please don’t go there!” But I spent more time there than all friends added together. Weekends and holidays I combed DTES street by street till I dropped. Nobody ever touched me. No needle ever pricked me. Those safety warnings are of the best intentions, of plain discrimination. The idea that DTES is dangerous is a divisive gulf of unjustified suspicion and unjustified fear. 

    BASTA!

    It is time to call it, “Basta! Let’s get Lazarus to the table.” Can we work on a major rewiring? Ours is the choice whether to break or propagate that separatist legacy which drives ministers, clientele and donors off to extreme poles. Is that legacy the only way to programme each other, the only way to programme future generations?   

    Had charity works been less polarized, we wouldn’t have to grapple with that how-who-what-when-where-why to own that bag of history on residential schools and slavery. Reconciliation-themed events and webinars still call indigenous and black communities ‘they’ even as many in our midst are indigenous and black. That third-person reference is a subconscious bias that sections out part of the same population as the others. 

    Printed and audio-visual channels debate over migrant and housing challenges as if no migrant nor unhoused person ever reads or watches those media – which is not true. People talked about are of our same audience and readership. Some do watch and read as folks talk across, around and about them. How would we feel if talked across, around and about? 

    It’s time to stop telling Lazarus, “Stay where you are, hang in there, let us continue feeding you year after year.” Let us raise Lazarus to the table, just like how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.