I took a Soc course in college called “Deviance”. It was one of the most fun classes I think college has to offer. But without going into all the zany things I did and/or observed, I will point out that one key thing we learned was that in American culture (if not all cultures) making eye contact with others suggests social involvement. Once it happens, there is a threshold that you cannot simply back out of, unless both parties just happen to attempt it at the same time.
This phenom is important as far as street-homeless ministry is concerned. This is why so many bloggers describe either making eye contact or avoiding it when they describe chance encounters with homeless people. Getting involved with the suffering of others is messy business that no one, not even me, would want to do casually. If you are not purposeful about getting involved, then avoiding eye contact is key to getting through the day or even down the block.
But here’s the thing: Our culture is doing this everywhere actually. We aren’t just avoiding the homeless, we are avoiding each other too. Allow me to demonstrate…
Just yesterday, I took a crew of Fat Beggars prophets to the South Plains Mall where we roamed the marketplace seeking encounters with people celebrating Christmas – strangers of course, but Christmas shopping strangers with whom surely we had some important things in common. However, we did not speak to anyone without establishing eye contact first.
Guess who made the most eye contact with us three prophets.
(Go ahead, guess…)
Okay, who did you guess?
Far and away, the people who established the most eye contact with us were sales people. And most of the conversations we broached started with their sales pitch. When we explained that we were not there to purchase anything but rather to interject Christ back into Christmas, about half the sales people began looking past us, over our shoulder, and saying, “Yeah…. uh huh… yeah… that’s interesting….” Meanwhile the nonverbal cues were telling us that without the opportunity to separate us from some cash, communication was pretty much done.
A few of them kept making sales pitches. I mean every segue led right back to the lotion or perfume or the sunglasses etc. These sales people were incorrigible. I was happy to walk away from them. They did not see me; they did not see Jesus; they saw only Mammon and kept conjuring him up for all they were worth.
A few of them seemed genuinely interested, and of course we invited them to join the conversation here on line! Hopefully we can attract more local attention! (It’s great getting people from all over the world to stop and read, join the conversation and all, but Fat Beggars aims to serve primarily Lubbock, Texas. That is never far from our mind.)
We did manage to converse with a handful of customers too. And those seemed most genuine of all, but still, those who engaged us were few, except for the sales folk, and most of them had limited interest.
Just down from the Victoria’s Secret store and the hair salon, I walked through the food court at lunch time where perhaps a thousand people were crowding in amid the smells of fried food and hairspray. As I walked past, I smiled as warmly as I could, praying under my breath, and I slipped through the mob scene of a city that professes to be 85% Christian “with a church on every corner”. It is true that most of them did not even notice me, but literally hundreds of them diverted their eyes from me, in what I recognized from my college training as “studied nonobservance” and “avoidance”.
Think about that. A Christian man with a Christian message in a Christian crowd but we don’t connect. In fact, I really won’t let those who didn’t notice off the hook here. If 85% of them really are Christian, shouldn’t they be more intentional and counter-cultural too?
And in a culture where this phenom is so pervasive (I know my evidence is entirely anecdotal, but really… if you want to argue it, go do some research and come back with it, because honestly, I have the prima facie case sowed up here!), so yeah in a culture where this phenom is so pervasive, homeless people on the street hardly stand a chance! And sadly MONEY, aka MAMMON, (AN IDOL!!! if ever there was one) turns out to be the medium, the tie that binds us together in whatever involvement we actually achieve rather than Jesus, His Spirit, or His Father.
We were strangers in a strange Merry Christmas land. In fact, just wishing strangers a “Merry Christmas” as they walked by made us stand out as quite odd.