(This essay was originally posted on January 25, 2011.)
The most memorable course I took in college was a seminar entitled Peace and Violence. We covered topics such as nuclear disarmament, poverty, and homelessness. Emboldened by youthful outrage and an utter lack of belief in our own mortality, two classmates and I decided for our final project to travel 30 miles north to Minneapolis and live on the streets for 48 hours. We naively reasoned that if we first lived the experience of being homeless, we would be better equipped to help find a solution. Unable to detour our idealist fervor, our panicked professors found us a contact person, provided a list of food banks, and made us a reservation at an overnight shelter, which we reluctantly promised to keep.
We quickly learned that reading about homelessness and actually wandering the streets penniless were very different experiences. Within hours, we were demoralized by a pervasive sense of purposelessness and boredom. Our self-worth plunged so low that soon we could no longer look normal pedestrians in the eyes. At lunch, a fight broke out, a knife was drawn and lunch trays were overturned. Following the example of the others, we scuttled along the walls fearfully until we escaped outside to safety. As the day wore on, one of the boys became angry, kicking at curbs in frustration. The other boy and I sunk into a gray depression, so much so that on the second day, while at a drop-in shelter, one of the staff caught my eye from across the room and mouthed, “I’ll be right with you. Hang on.” In less than a day and a half, I’d shed my college persona so completely that I was mistaken for a scared and desperate runaway.
What we experienced was not surprising. One of the most disturbing statistics we read in our research was that if you put a psychologically sound person on the streets, after only three months he or she will begin to show signs of mental illness. Once off the streets, it would take almost two years for them to return to normal psychology if no previous mental illness existed. Combine this fact with the large number of homeless on the street because of their mental illness–estimates range from 35 to 75 percent–and you have a lot of instability with nowhere to live.
My classmates and I returned to campus and began a fundraising campaign–bake sales and a concert of campus bands–to raise money to battle homelessness. We raised almost $2000. Impressive considering our campus population of 3000 students, but terribly insignificant when matched against the funds needed to help the homeless. And so began a niggling frustration of never being able to do enough in the face of an overwhelming problem. This frustration became crushing as I traveled and studied in developing countries where the poverty and need was so great that it was challenging to keep my eyes and heart open to the suffering. A coin given to one outstretched hand led to forty more hands being shoved in my face, and despite emptying my wallet day after day, my contributions did nothing to weaken the tide of need. Upon returning to the United States, I realized that the problems here and around the world were simply overwhelming, and the guilt and shame of our American excess more than I could bear. Could I find a way to help that made any significant difference? If I helped here, wouldn’t I be leaving out someone in need over there? Despite my best efforts, I became paralyzed by the enormity of the issues and eventually I did as most of us do: I averted my eyes and moved on to making a comfortable life.
But the thorny problem of how to give with any kind of significance continued to run circles in my brain, especially after I had children. With their arrival, I faced a difficult paradox. I desperately wanted the world to be a better place for them. I didn’t want them to have that awful childhood moment when they realized there are people in the world who don’t have enough to eat or a place to sleep, and that the rest of us complacently let this happen. But at the same time, I was so busy with their care that I found myself dropping out of the world completely.
Our small town, isolated geographically and without any transportation or shelter services to speak of, is not an opportune situation for the homeless. It was surprising then to see, a few years ago, a homeless man standing in the meat department of the local Vons fingering a package of steaks. He was hidden under mounds of clothing that were dark with dirt and I could smell him from ten feet away. As I stood and watched him, my heart cracked at the idea that he longed for a steak he could probably not afford or have the facilities to cook. As he moved on to examine a row of sausages, my youngest, just a baby riding in a pack on my back, began to squirm impatiently, and my toddler grabbed for a display of beef jerky. I moved on, pushing my cart around the store, adding item after item from my list, a silent fury rising within me.
Our shopping completed, I loaded my two girls and our groceries into the car and shut the doors against the bitter winter wind that was whipping down from the mountains. While the car warmed, I gripped the steering wheel tightly. A quote from Mother Theresa that I’d taped onto my desk pecked at my conscience. “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” I was sick of feeling paralyzed by insignificance. I wanted to give even if the amount was so small it wouldn’t matter. I jammed the car in gear and began driving around the perimeter of the shopping area.
“Where are we going, Mommy?” my toddler asked after our third loop.
“I’m looking for someone,” I said, peering out the side window. And then I saw him, huddled against a loading dock trying to escape the wind. I dug into my wallet for my hidden emergency twenty, and got out of car, fury shielding me from the cold. He didn’t move as I approached. I held out the bill and said brusquely, “Here, this is for you.”
He looked up and took the money between dirty fingers. His eyes were clear and sane. They were also patient, kind, and accepting. “God bless you, Dear,” he said.
My own eyes filled with tears and my knees almost buckled. In the past, I’d turned away from the Christian church because of anger at the gap between message and deed, but at that moment, I had a sudden and clear understanding of the true meaning of Christ. I’d once heard a sermon that suggest we learn to find the living Christ in every person we meet and treat them as we would treat Jesus. The pastor said that everyone wore the face of Jesus. That day I gave away twenty dollars and in exchange had been blessed by a homeless man wearing the face of Christ.
Overwhelmed by emotion, I stumbled back to my car. I opened the door to a volley of questions from my toddler. “Who was that man, Mommy? Do we know him? What did you give him?”
When I told her that I didn’t know the man, but that I gave him some money because he was probably hungry and didn’t have anywhere to live, she exclaimed, “But Mommy, we should’ve taken him home with us! We have lots of room!”
And we should have, but we didn’t. There is a code of giving in this country that does not extend to inviting homeless people into your extra bedroom. Protective of my family’s safety, I didn’t feel equipped to bend the rules, even for a homeless man who wore the face of Jesus.
Unlike me, my friend Andrea isn’t one for rules.
When she was living in Oregon, a young homeless man stole her son’s skateboard while they played at the park. The young man jumped on a city bus to flee. Andrea, feisty and spirited by nature, hopped in her minivan, her kids in tow, and chased after the bus, motioning the driver to pull over. While the police wrote up a report, Andrea fired questions at the young man sitting on the ground in a heap. Finally she asked, “Are you sick?”
Determining that he was, Andrea dismissed the police and against their advice, helped the young man into her minivan. She called her husband who shouted, “Tell me you do not have a homeless man in your van with our three children!” Undeterred, Andrea took him home and fixed him a sandwich, but her instinct and paramedic training told her that he needed more than just a meal. She drove him to the nearest E.R.
Andrea was right, the young man was sick. In fact, he was dying. The only thing they could do was admit him and try to make him as comfortable as possible, but he refused to stay in the hospital, afraid someone would take his few belongings from the camp on the edge of town where he slept. Unable to persuade him otherwise, Andrea drove him to his stash where he insisted on spending the night. The next day she went to check on him; his condition had worsened. He confided to Andrea that he hadn’t seen his family in years. Alcoholism had led him to the streets, and he was too ashamed to contact them. Andrea gleaned enough details from their conversation to track down his family. She inform them of their son’s condition and whereabouts, and they came immediately from some distance away. The young man’s mother held him in her arms as he died a few days later. He wasn’t just a random homeless person. He was someone’s beloved son, and his name was David.
Whenever I think of David and Andrea’s story, I am reminded of a stanza from the poem “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye. Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,/ you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho/ lies dead by the side of the road./ You must see how this could be you,/ how he too was someone/ who journeyed through the night with plans/ and the simple breath that kept him alive. (For complete poem www.elise.com/quotes/poetry/naomi.htm )
To look into the face of homelessness, hunger, and poverty unflinchingly is to learn that kindness shadows all suffering. It is to see the living Christ. It is to humbly, quietly, and smally be part of a great and powerful ocean.
As I stated earlier, our town does not lend itself to a very large homeless population. Occasionally, though, we have one or two homeless people who settle down, so to speak, in our community and are taken under our wing. The local police check on them to make sure they are warm enough on cold nights. People learn where they are camped and leave bundles of clothing and blankets. Restaurants and bakeries give an occasional handout.
One man has been here for a couple of years now. He walks up and down the highway between the small towns that dot this corridor between L.A. and Reno. Mental illness wraps him in a cloak of isolation. When he is in our town, he spends some mornings at the small local grocery store around the corner from our house. He sits at the picnic tables outside, thumbing through a worn book and mumbling to himself. A parade of workmen greet him with “Hey Buddy, how’s it going?” as they stop in for coffee and gas before they head out for the day. Now and then, one of these hardworking guys with a big American truck and a bumper sticker that reads Annoy a Liberal, Work Hard and Be Happy, stops by the man’s table and deposits a donut, a small carton of orange juice, or a premade sandwich. “Have a good day,” they say. “Let me know if you need anything.” The homeless man nods and smiles slightly without making eye contact. The face of Jesus. A small but significant drop in the ocean. The tender gravity of kindness.
Update: I sent an email and link to this article to my friend Andrea who now lives in Scotland. She sent me the following response with more information about her experience with David:
“I’m honored and once again humbled by David’s story. I loved and will continue to love David for all that he gave me and my family. Here are a few more things that come to mind about David.
*David was an alcoholic.
*He was only 34 when he died of cirrhosis of the liver.
*He never had a drop of alcohol until he was 21.
*The divorce of his parents and a bad break-up with a girl led him to start drinking.
*David once saw his mother in a grocery store, they walked right past each other but she did not recognize him.
*David’s mother had not seen him for seven years prior to holding his hand in ICU–she never left his sight after that.
*David was very loved by his family
*David’s family asked Sam (Andrea’s husband) to do the funeral and our boys were asked to spread his ashes, all of which was very powerful and moving.
*At the funeral David’s mom showed us David’s wallet and in it was the money I had given him, minus a few dollars, and a picture Owen (Andrea’s oldest son) had drawn for him. It was a picture of a million dollars. Owen thought that if David had money he wouldn’t die.
*As soon as David sat in our minivan he turned to the boys in the back and apologized for stealing their skateboard. Wide-eyed both boys, in unison, said, “We forgive you.”
*As we drove to our house to drop off the kids with a neighbor and grab my ATM card, David had tears streaming down his face. He was totally quiet.
*I knew he was ill because every square inch of him was jaundice.
*When I parked the car in front of the bank to pull out money for him, I asked him if he wanted me to leave the car running because I could tell he was enjoying listening to the radio. David replied, “Yeah, that would be nice.” I said, “Okay, but don’t steal my car.” We both chuckled and then he said. “Trust me, I won’t–I’m not that crazy!”
*In the end, David was very thankful to be reunited with his family.
*We will forever love David.”
Andrea still has compelling need to serve and bring aid to the homeless.