The Modern Samaritans: Why I am thankful for people who help the homeless

May 23—A few weeks ago, New Yorker and Veteran Daniel Penny was on a subway train when a homeless man by the name of Jordan Neely began loudly begging for food and shelter. After years of suffering from poverty, Neely apparently was having a mental breakdown. To make Neely stop yelling, Penny placed Neely in a chokehold. In a few minutes, Neely asphyxiated and died in Penny's arms.

The death of Jordan Neely sparked outrage among many across in the United States. People felt that this was a modern lynching akin to the post-civil-war 19th century. However other politicians and those in the media called the man who killed Neely a hero, saying he was "A Good Samaritan."

"Good Samaritan" is a phrase used often for someone who, out of pure altruism, helps a stranger in need. It's a reference to the biblical story of a man who was beaten and robbed then left for dead. The man is passed by two religious leaders. Rather than help him, they cross to the other side of the road. Finally a Samaritan finds the man and gives him money, clothes, and shelter so the man can recuperate.

The word "Samaritan" meant something far different than it does today. Samaritans were once a large and vibrant people group populating the Levant during the life of Jesus Christ. Genetically and culturally, they were barely different from Palestinian Jews. However, they spoke a different dialect of Aramaic. While they worshipped God, their customs and values were different than the Jews. The Nazarenes Jesus lived with saw Samaritans as outsiders and "half-breeds." They were often referred to as "dogs."

When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, His message about "loving your neighbor" wasn't just religious—It was political. It communicated quite clearly to his followers that neighborly love didn't just apply to others in their community, it extended to anyone who needed help—even ethnic minorities.

In Pulaski County, our homeless population continues to climb. There is no hard estimate, but from my several interviews, I've heard people give numbers ranging from 150 to almost 400, maybe even more. The homeless people in this town don't have many options, and they often find themselves at odds with business owners, workers, and the police. But Pulaski is only a microcosm of the United States' problem with the homeless.

When I hear stories of what happened in New York, about how Jordan Neely, rather than being seen as someone who needed help, was seen instead as a danger and someone who should be killed because he was "violent and mentally ill," it reminds of programs like Help the Homeless, God's Food Pantry, From the Heart, and many others that emulate the Samaritan Jesus talked about.

They didn't see homeless people as beneath them. The drug addiction, criminal past, and mental illness that so many homeless people suffer from is not something that they see as "dangerous." Rather, they are opportunities to embrace those in pain.

It makes me wish that Jordan Neely had been a Pulaski Countian.