Sunday, December 25, 2011

On skid row, the flow of the gift


I hope this finds you enjoying the holiday season.  By working hard for peace and justice, we might have some influence in making our community better. And after seeing Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, I know miracles do happen.  So maybe peace will break out in 2012.




On skid row, the flow of the gift

At skid row's Catholic Worker soup kitchen, an aggressive panhandler offers a reminder about the gift of giving.

Jeff Dietrich

December 23, 2011

He is an aggressive panhandler, with a grizzled beard, matted hair, dirty T-shirt. In his battered wheelchair he pushes himself backward, moving at lightning speed with the grace and agility of a star athlete. I have never been fond of Bob. He boldly stops traffic at the intersection holding cars hostage with horns blaring until he receives his ransom.

When Bob comes to our soup kitchen he always goes to the head of the line. I resent his preferential treatment, because I suspect that he may not actually be physically disabled. Although I work with the skid row poor on a daily basis at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen, I secretly reserve the right to like some poor folks more than others, and Bob is definitely not on my "A" list.

Our culture finds beggars and panhandlers reprehensible, even in these difficult economic times. Most of us hate to see the beggar at the end of the freeway offramp, and, like myself, we hope that the signal light changes swiftly before we are accosted at our car windows with their dirty plastic cups and tattered handwritten signs. We hope that our raised windows and blaring radios will immunize us from their insistence.

Most Americans tend to think begging is unnecessary. If you are in good health you can get a job; if you are mentally or physically ill you can apply for assistance. Just leave me alone. In America we are committed to the market system, despite its current sorry state. We are committed to conceiving of the world as an endless opportunity for personal advancement if you apply yourself.

But the origins of our original humanity did not come from the market mentality. Lewis Hyde, in his now classic book "The Gift," writes eloquently of the thousands of years of human culture that preceded our own, in which gift and gift exchange, not commodities and market exchange, were the basis of human relationship.

Hyde reminds us that all "prehistoric societies," primitive tribal people, Native Americans, native Africans, as well as the ancient Hebrews, practiced the ritual of "first fruits," the symbolic giving back to the Creator of the first fruits of the harvest, of the salmon run, of the hunt, as an acknowledgment that all life is gift and that we live by gift. In market culture that primordial insight is obscured and we live under the illusion that what we have is what we have earned.

Market culture is based on scarcity, the sense that there is never enough. Gift culture, according to Hyde, is based on abundance, the sense that there will always be enough when we keep the gift in circulation. The beggar at the crossroads is an archetypal figure in ancient folklore and fairy tales, and even in the Bible: He is often the bearer of gifts that can be bestowed only on the one who gives. Hyde quotes the Catholic monk Thomas Merton: The beggar is "the bearer of the empty place … [and] has an active duty beyond his supplication. He is the vehicle of the fluidity which is abundance. The wealth of the group touches his bowl at all sides, as if it were the center of the wheel where the spokes meet. The gift gathers there, and the beggar gives it away again when he meets someone who is empty."

Wheelchair Bob recently came into our soup kitchen in his battered chair, smelling of urine and excrement, and he handed me a soiled paper cup filled with pennies and nickels and dimes. I was dumbfounded and perplexed to be the recipient of this beggar's gift. "This is for the prisoners," he said. Later my wife explained that when Bob begs, he keeps the dollar bills for himself, but the spare change he donates to our stamps for prisoners project, so that those in prison can write to their loved ones on the outside.

When I think of Wheelchair Bob and Lewis Hyde and the flow of the gift and the increasing number of beggars that accost us with their need in these difficult economic times, I am reminded of my favorite Christmas carol about Good King Wenceslas who went out on the Feast of Stephen and called on his page to "bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither," and carried those gifts to the beggar who lived, "'neath the mountain, right against the forest fence, by St. Agnes' fountain," reminding us all of "wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now would bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing."

Jeff Dietrich is co-director of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker soup kitchen on skid row and is the editor of its newspaper, the Catholic Agitator. He is the author of the recently published book, "Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity and the Poor on Los Angeles' Skid Row."

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] Go to


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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