We finally got the food set out and people were ready to go through the line. We were serving our usual bagels, cereal and fruit. As the group filed through, people were asking if we had any plain bagels or cinnamon raisin, or if they were lucky a cranberry bagel. Someone was upset that we ran out of plain bagels and was complaining to the volunteer serving. From somewhere in the back of the line a person yelled,"Quit holding up the line! Beggars can't be choosers."
Later in the day, we were handing out coats and gloves. It had been fairly cold the past few days, so warm clothing was much appreciated. As people sorted through the coats to find something that they liked and that would fit, a man said, "Man, I really like this red coat, but it's not my size." The person next to him piped up, "Too bad, but you know, beggars can't be choosers."
I heard the phrase, "beggars can't be choosers" too many times that day and something about it began to bother me. I let the words swirl around in my head and tried to figure out why it bothered me. Was it the person who said it? Was it the way they said it? No, it was something much deeper.
Beggars can't be choosers is a common phrase used in our culture. We use it to describe the idea that if you ask for something from someone, you should not question or complain about what you are given. You are supposed to say thank you and simply receive, you don't get a choice in what or how it is given. On one level, we may use this phrase to teach someone to be grateful, but on a deeper level, and in the context of those who literally have to beg for food or money, we are saying people who depend on the generosity of others are in no position to dictate what others give them.
This situation sets up two different postures of power. First, the one with power, who has the means to give and second, the other, who is powerless and can only receive. If you are constantly in the position of being powerless (the beggar) eventually you will internalize that and it becomes your identity. You only view yourself as always receiving, always in need, always depending on others; not as a chooser, who has the power to give and can offer something in return.
Time and time again, society says that those who are poor or homeless can only receive and are powerless. At Ripple Community Inc, we believe this is false.
We listen to the people who come to our Community Building Center and often they have had their fill of leftover, stale bread. Or the bag of clothes with worn out old socks with holes that should really be thrown away. But they are told, "beggars can't be choosers," they are in no position to argue with what has been given, they should simply be grateful because at least they have something.
The underlying message we are sending people when we offer out-of-date food or tattered clothing is, "You are only worth my leftovers."
At RCI, we reject the idea that the people living at the margins of society are powerless, that they can only receive and are only worthy of our leftovers. The men and women who participate in our Community Building Center have helped their neighbors through Community Exchange by painting houses or cutting lawns. They have made art-- woven rugs, rock paintings, Christmas ornaments-- to share with friends and churches. Several men and women have started petitions to improve community services in Allentown. When they are reminded of their power and given a voice to act, our street neighbors are able to do great things.
As Christmas time comes around again, we will celebrate with gifts at our Community Building Center. We will allow our street neighbors to pick out their own gifts and have the chance to give gifts to others. We try to restore their humanity and dignity by allowing them to bless someone else. In this way, their identity changes from "beggar" to "giver," from "powerless" to "powerful."