About two weeks ago I was walking to work in the rain and I passed by a homeless man. He was an older fellow (probably in his fifties), standing next to a suitcase and a rolled up sleeping bag. As I went by he asked me for change, but I didn’t have any. I told him so and kept walking. However, he called after me: “Do you have an extra smoke?” I did, so I gave him one. And then he broke down.
He began to cry, and told me about how he had been living in one of the cheap hotels in my neighbourhood, but it was all just too, well, scary. He was heading to the bus station to try and get out of town. But he was so terrified that he didn’t know if he would make it.
It’s hard for me to describe what I saw. Every now and again I have seen, on the faces of people I have encountered, absolute naked despair. I still remember the first time I saw that sort of despair (on the face of a fellow who had just relapsed — again — who came to stay at the shelter I worked at in Toronto). It is a hard thing to behold. It sort of hits you in the chest. Furthermore, I don’t think this man knew the first thing about street life, I think he was just one of those seniors who doesn’t have anybody and ends up falling through the gaps in society (it’s amazing how easily that happens).
Anyway, this grandfather looked at me, his voice cracking, and pleaded: “I’m going to make it right? Right? I can make it?” And so I put my hand on his shoulder, I looked him in the eye, and I told him, “Yes. Yes, you’re gonna make it. The station is just up the straight. You can do this.” And he was so grateful, we seemed to connect, and he seemed to gain some hope from my words. “Okay,” he said with relief. “Okay, I’m gonna make it.”
So then I walked away. I needed to get to work on time and I was feeling pretty good about myself. It was all so… sentimental. But then, later that night, I got to thinking, and I remembered the story Jesus told about the good Samaritan. And I remembered how the religious leaders walked by the dying man because they had places to go, people to see, and deadlines to meet. And I remembered that the one who truly loved his neighbour was the man who stopped and tended to the dying man and took him to a place where he would be safe. And I thought about how I had acted. And I realized that I was not a very good lover of my neighbour. I realized that I pride myself on journeying alongside of those in exile and yet, in this situation, I had completely failed to love my neighbour.
You see, I should have walked with that grandfather to the bus station. I should have bought him a ticket and put him on a bus and called to say I was going to be a few minutes late for work. No ifs, ands, or buts. Of course, by saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that there is no power in speaking affectionate timely words, but Christian love never stops with words alone. Those words must be embodied in actions — and sometimes giving out free cigarettes isn’t nearly action enough.
Since moving into the downtown eastside, I can remember at least two other situations where I realized, after the fact, how I had completely dropped the ball (oddly enough, both of those other situations also occurred when I was walking to work). I have realized that I still have much to learn about what it means to journey alongside of those who are in exile, and much to learn about what it means to love my neighbour in both mundane and unexpected situations.
This is a part of the reason why it’s so important that the Church be rooted on the margins of society. It is our day-to-day involvement in such places that reveals our blind-spots to us. We need to have these encounters in the midst of our mundane routines so that we can learn, more and more, how to move into ever deeper intimacy with God and with his beloved (yet broken) creation. And we need to learn this as a community. Because I can be a slow learner at times, and others will have learned something before me. When we go it alone then who knows how many people will suffer because we are slow to learn what love means in this or that situation. Because I don’t know if that grandfather made it to the bus station or not.
Holy Spirit, teach me to love. Teach your Church to love. And, even though it seems like you often do not, please care for those we fail to love. Amen.