This past week, I had the great honor of leading an alternative spring break trip of ten undergraduate students to Philadelphia, with an emphasis on interfaith encounters and social justice. We focused primarily on issues of homelessness and hunger, and were able to meet and work alongside several excellent service organizations, including Project HOME, MANNA, and the SHARE Food Program. We also worked with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia to visit different religious communities around the city to both share in a worship experience and discuss how social justice and one's particular religious tradition inform and inspire one another. It was a truly amazing week, and we were only able to scratch the surface of these incredibly important issues.
On our second day in Philadelphia, we were engaged in a workshop on assessing the needs of the homeless population, and several students were sharing texts and stories from their own religious tradition that inspired us to care for others. It quickly became apparent that nearly every religious tradition represented in the group has a tradition or teaching related to caring for others, whether they are defined as the outcast, the weak, the vulnerable, or the alien.
The most commonly raised story was that of The Good Samaritan, a parable of Jesus found in Luke 10:25-37. This short story tells of a man who is beaten and robbed and left on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite both walk by without offering him any assistance, despite being the religious leaders of the Jewish community (and Jesus' audience), and therefore folks from whom one might expect support or assistance. The only one who stops to help the man is a Samaritan, a member of a closely related religious and ethnic group generally despised by the Jewish community at the time. Jesus tells this story in answer to the question, who is my neighbor that I am commanded to love as myself? The answer, at least the answer that most people get out of it, is that your neighbor is the man who needs your help; anyone and everyone is your neighbor. More strikingly, the message is that in this example the despised Samaritan is following the teachings of God where the religious leaders are failing. In the case of loving one's neighbor, purity and ritual are less important than showing compassion for others.
Most students in the room had heard this parable before, even those from non-Christian backgrounds. Being familiar with the story, we immediately recognized the parable as being a summons to care for anyone in need: to take the time to offer assistance to another, even when you may put yourself at some risk or it will take some additional effort. It was only in hearing the story in the context of our week working with service organizations and hearing the stories of individuals experiencing homelessness and hunger that I heard another lesson to the story, one that is perfectly pertinent to our week of work and discussion.
This time around, what stood out to me was that the Samaritan - let's call him Sam for short - continued on his journey after bringing the injured man to an inn. Sam stopped and bandaged the man's wounds, but then carried him on his donkey to the closest place where the man could receive extended, thoughtful care. He did not attempt to take care of the man by himself, nor did he throw away his own journey in order to take on this unexpected task. The best thing that Sam could do was to give the injured man back his dignity, and to connect the man to existing resources and services. Through this lens, Sam models for each us how to balance caring for others and caring for ourselves.
Over the course of our week together, issues of balance and ethics came up repeatedly. There is so much that needs to be done to bring about justice and equality - are these drops in the bucket worthwhile? How can we make the most sustainable impact? How far is far enough? Is it unethical for me to only buy someone lunch when I could afford to do more? I am not suggesting that we have answered these questions, but I think Sam gives us a place to start.
I don't expect my college students with limited resources to completely sacrifice their own well-being and needs for the sake of others, nor do I think that such sacrifice would be a sustainable model of care. Giving up some of your time, attention, and resources, and then leading people to resources of sustainable care - this is a balance we can emulate. What we heard over and over again during our week together was that the most important thing we can do for people experiencing homelessness, hunger, and other forms of desperate need is to treat them like human beings, worthy of respect and possessing inherent dignity. If you don't have money or food to spare, you can still speak with people rather than walking by without giving them a second glance. Asking their name, asking for their story, and connecting them to local resources in the area are simple ways to hugely impact someone else.
Growing up as the daughter of a Baptist minister, I have heard the story of Sam dozens of times, and I thought I understood its message. Only now do I see it for more than a story about caring for someone else - it's also about knowing the limits of what you can offer someone, and finding ways to get them the help they really need. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, with different capabilities and resources. We can all treat others with dignity, and we can all do the best with what we have, wherever we find ourselves.
Take the time to locate resources in your area for people experiencing homelessness, hunger, and other forms of need.
This painting, Parable of the Good Samaritan was done by Jan Wijnants in 1670 and is available through Wikimedia Commons.
Esther Boyd is the Communications Director for State of Formation, as well as a humanist working in multifaith chaplaincy at Johns Hopkins University. She holds an M.A. in Religion and Literature from Yale University, where she focused on religious identity, and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Colby College where she focused on American apocalypticism. While in graduate school, she founded Yale Divinity School’s interfaith student cooperative, Open Party, sparking deeper interest in interreligious education. Esther is also an editor for the Humanist Chaplaincy thinkblog Applied Sentience.