Overheard: “Taking Burritos to Hobos”

While I was working my Sunday night desk job, I overheard one of the students talking on her phone: “Hey.  Do you want to come with me to like, take some burritos to hobos?

I figured out that she had a few extra burritos and had already given one to a man who appeared to be homeless.  Although I cringe at the word “hobo,” this girl’s desire to simply do something was evident.  In fact, I’m guessing everyone in the study hall that night heard snippets of the burrito story — she was very excited.

Afterward, I felt skeptical about whether or not this was a true act of hospitality, or if it was just a moment of service that also made for a good story.  It was a random act of service, yes, but did it really get at the heart of what untamed service truly is?  Am I holding this girl to too high of a standard?

I have this extremely unfortunate vision of what happened, something which speaks to my own cynicism: Girl pulls up to a stop sign with leftover burritos.  A less-than-cleaned-up guy is standing at the intersection.  She rolls down her window and says, “Hey, want this burrito?”  He nods, takes it, and watches her drive away in her SUV.  She gets to study hall, struck by her random act of kindness.  She calls up a friend and says, “Want to come with me to like, take some burritos to hobos?”  The friend is busy.  The extra burrito gets cold.  In fact, by this time it’s been cold for a good half hour.  She never takes the other burrito.  It gets thrown out on her way home.

(Here I should point out that I have no idea what really happened with the burritos.  Truthfully, what I overheard the student saying gave me a chance to springboard into a line of thought that I always return to: how meaningful acts of service are best implemented.)

But isn’t what I imagined relatively close to what happens?  We get excited about serving someone in an unusual way, and we revel in re-telling the story to an extent that keeps us from moving forward with a similar act.  Since there’s no follow-through, the story is mostly empty.  In the burrito story’s case, sadly empty.

I may be too cynical.  Spontaneous acts of service or hospitality are beautiful, but my sense is that the planned acts are even more powerful.  Planned acts say this: the love that I show to you is not based upon whether it’s convenient.  Spontaneity makes for good stories, but it’s not a good way of meeting basic, human needs.

I’m not saying that the spontaneity should stop.  I am challenging that notion that it should be a part of an outward, flamboyant “story.”  The overarching narrative of service and hospitality should be something more akin to a miniseries.  There’s no real climax — just a series of powerful “turns” that prompt slow, but pivotal, stirrings in the people and things around it.

Dorothy Day always says it better.  This is from her autobiography, The Long Loneliness:

 “Going to the people is the purest and best act in Christian tradition and revolutionary tradition and is the beginning of world brotherhood.  Never to be severed from the people, to set out always from the point of view of serving the people, not serving the interests of a small group or oneself … It is almost another way of saying that we must and will find Christ in each and every man, when we look on them as brothers.”

{click on photo for image credit}

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3 Comments

  1. I love the idea of a miniseries approach to service. It resonates with my past experiences. I have been guilty of one shot moments. To take a long term approach is much more difficult, but gets at the heart of Jesus’ radical call to love.

  2. Great stuff, Courtney. I’ve been wrestling with this idea myself for many years. It’s such a tricky thing to negotiate the difference between sharing the joy of worshipful service and drawing attention to one’s own perceived goodness. Thanks for the thoughts – as is often the case, they’ve left me with a sense of holy unrest.

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