There is something in our human condition that makes it easy for us to walk past or ignore people and situations that make us feel uncomfortable. Many of us have an internal defence mechanism. We have conditioned ourselves to think poverty, illness, or homelessness could never touch ourselves or those closest to us. As a result, we become defensive and can easily judge those who find themselves in those very situations we’ve been trying all our lives to avoid. The truth is that every time I take that extra moment to talk to a rough sleeper or one of my friends who works in a homeless ministry, I am deeply humbled. I am humbled because I realize that every single one of us is really only one job loss, one mental illness, or one addiction away from poverty and plight. Everyone on the street has a name, a face, and a story. Many of them have families. Yet when they are outside on a cold, windy, rainy day they become reduced to a mere blob. Someone we hurriedly walk past without glancing up and mumble “get a job” to under our breaths.
The truth of the matter is that I am really no better than anyone else when it comes to this reality. I also find rough sleepers uncannily uncomfortable. I sometimes try to force myself to at least look these individuals in the eyes and nod or smile, but even then I fail most of the time. I try to do better, but it seems there is always this invisible barrier I am unable to cross.
When I first moved to Edinburgh I saw rough sleepers on every corner. I thought to myself “wow, the homeless problem here is really bad. It’s much worse than in Canada.” That is until one of my friends pointed out a hard truth. It’s not that there are more rough sleepers in Scotland, it’s that I never noticed the ones we had in Toronto. Going to school and working full time in Toronto for the past 8 years caused these individuals to become a blur. I walked past them every day and we had an unspoken agreement – I’ll ignore you and in exchange you won’t trouble me by asking for change. I saw the same people day in and day out, but I never once paused to ask any of them for a name or for a story.
Going to Edinburgh did not entirely solve this problem for me, either, but at least it forced me to start thinking about the issue of homelessness in a different way. Sometimes we have to move somewhere completely different geographically in order to better understand this worldwide phenomenon. I still can’t say that I’ve ever made much of an effort to get to know a street person, but a few things in my attitude have shifted.
For one, I now see these people as people. Last Christmas I began thinking of what it must be like to be on the street without any Christmas cheer. Since I was living away from my own family at that time and felt a pang of homesickness and a wave of loneliness, I felt that these individuals must feel even worse. At least I had friends and a L’Arche family to share a ham dinner with. Some of these men and women had no one. So I decided the least I could do was give out Christmas cards and chocolates. I’m not sure how many could read, but I can tell you that the sheer look of joy on their faces when they received these parcels is something I will not soon forget.
Secondly, I started buying the “Big Issue” (a local UK magazine that shares social justice news). What at first began as disinterested annoyance at the vendor trying to hawk them to me, soon turned into an unspoken expectation. Every week I would be back. Every week I would hand over $2.50. Every week I would get a great read and give the vendor a sense of ownership and autonomy. Since I’ve been home, I’ve been a bit discouraged that I don’t get to see these vendors as much anymore. But you can guarantee that whenever I head over to the UK next, I’ll come back with a few issues tucked into my suitcase.
Lastly, I have this unsettled feeling in my soul that there is something more I can do. Before I left Edinburgh I heard of this great opportunity at my church to serve breakfast to rough sleepers. I am sorry to say I never took them up on this offer. I only had a few short weeks left and felt it would take too long to train. But this idea has stuck with me for the past 6 months (including the past 3 that I’ve been back). I don’t think God is calling me to full time ministry with rough sleepers, but I think Edinburgh stirred something in my soul. A desire I never knew existed. A passion to not just live with those who are marginalized during my time at L’Arche, but to embrace all marginalized people even during non-working hours.
This week, I want to challenge you – don’t walk past the people who make you feel awkward or shy. If you live in a big city, I’m sure you’ll encounter plenty of rough sleepers this week. You don’t necessarily have to give them money (unless you really want to), but you can at least offer a smile and a wave. You can validate that man as a person, that woman as a potential mother. If you live in an area that sells homeless magazines or newspapers, you could consider buying one this week – if for no other reason than to see what social justice issues are facing your community. If you live in a rural town, poverty might be more hidden, but I can guarantee you that there are still plenty of people feeling miserable and invisible. Perhaps this week a friend will unexpectedly reveal to you that she is struggling with an addiction or that he is struggling with a mental health issue. Don’t walk past them (metaphorically speaking). You don’t need to be a trained counselor, but you can still offer a listening ear and your support. People are not so much looking for answers as they are looking for acceptance, inclusion, and love.
May God guide you on this journey of walking with each other whether on the busy city street or the dusty county lane.