A single act of compassion which challenged my entire way of life.
I was young, but the moment is forever branded in my memory. I was walking through Toronto with my family - the occasion or circumstance I do not recall. What I do recall, with striking clarity, is the man against the wall buried in a sleeping bag and holding a cardboard sign emblazed with permanent marker plea: HOMELESS. PLEASE GIVE. GOD BLESS.
Having been raised in a very rural small-town, I was admittedly a very sheltered child. As far as I know, the homeless population in Centre Wellington is small, if not non-existent. When walking through downtown Elora, you do not have to step over bodies lying on the street, or fumble in your pocket for spare change. You do not try to avoid eye contact, or feel a pang of guilt as you walk by without stopping.
Therefore, when I laid eyes on a homeless person in Toronto as a child for the first time, I felt a confused mixture of emotions. Everyone else kept walking with a sense of purpose trying not to look at the man on the street. Some snuck a glance, but quickly averted their eyes so as to avoid obligation. My parents also urged me along, telling me not to stare and to keep walking please. But I couldn't help it.
He appeared to be a middle-aged man, though it was difficult to tell for certain because of the scraggly grey beard which hid most of his face. He wore a toque, an old plaid coat, and was wrapped in a sleeping bag. His worn, cold hands held the cardboard sign, and in front of him was an empty Tim Hortons cup, in it, a few random coins. But his eyes were what struck me the most. They were a bright, cold blue, and stood out against his old weathered face. They were beautiful eyes. I remember looking into them, hoping they would tell a story, give me some sort of glimpse into this man's life, or portray some kind of emotion.
But his eyes were empty. I do not know how else to describe it...they were simply... empty. They revealed no hurt, no comfort, no anger, no acceptance. They were blank, as if nothing that those eyes saw could ever affect him in any way.
Is that what years of hurried steps and averted eyes do to a person?
It was worse than if those eyes had told the worst story in the world.
A Poor Soul
Do you remember the first time you told a white lie? Just a small fib, or a minor exaggeration. Nobody knew, it could be that nobody cared. But you knew, you cared, and the guilt you felt ate at your conscience.
Do you remember the last time you told a white lie? The last time you exaggerated a story just a bit? Probably not. Repeated ignorance causes us to become numb to the urgings of our consciences.
The first time I walked away from the homeless man with the cardboard sign and empty eyes, I felt a sick with guilt. His face flashed in my mind, and my guilty conscience devoured me.
Today, I live in Toronto, walk past homeless people frequently, and yet only feel dull gnawing of my conscience which disappears soon after. If someone asked me to describe in detail one homeless person I saw that day, I could not do it.
I do not attribute this to a poor memory. I attribute this to a poor soul. I have become somewhat desensitized to something that ought to break my heart, and for this, I am ashamed.
Now some of you reading this may be shaking your head, or inwardly offering comfort to my guilty soul thinking: oh don't worry Katrina, it's not your problem.
No? Then whose problem is it? As humans we are so ready to hand off the responsibility to someone else, thinking that there is surely someone who will take care of the issue. So we play a game of hot-potato, singing "not my problem, pass it on...pass it on...pass it on...".
One of the devil's favorite strategies is a false sense of freedom from responsibility, and a desensitization of the things which should ache us.
A Beautiful Encounter
Yet just recently my poor soul was inspired. In fact, this entire post was inspired by just one moment. It was a Saturday, and the interns were all gathered downtown for a tour of Toronto. The tour guide was late, and so we hung outside Old City Hall, talking and waiting. I drank my Starbucks and posed for pictures and - as many moments in my life - was utterly self consumed. My blinded eyes and desensitized heart did not even notice the man sprawled on the sidewalk just fifty feet away.
But someone else did. Another intern saw the man, but did not just see him. She approached him, and sat down in front of him on the dirty, busy sidewalk of Queen street. She did not step over him, or avert her eyes. Instead, she sat - coming down to his level - and looked him straight in the eye. Such compassion, respect and love were in those eyes. And as she sat there, she began to talk to the man on the sidewalk.
Now for the rest of us, we could not hear or know what she was talking about. In fact, few of us noticed the beautiful display of compassion that was taking place. However, when I did notice, my heart smiled. There was no sense of performance in her actions, instead, she acted quietly and sincerely. She saw this man with her heart, as a soul who needs love, and so she loved him. It was as simple as that.
The Least of These
"Then the righteous ones will reply, 'Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?'
And the King will say, 'I tell you the truth, when you did to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!' "
~Jesus~ (Mathew 25:37-40)
Now stop. Go back and read that passage again. Read it over and over until it resonates in your heart. The righteous will ask the Lord, "when did we see you?". They will not remember seeing Christ, because they had moved on quickly, with a false sense of purpose.
"When did we see you?"
They had ignored the dull gnaw of guilt in their conscience.
"When did we see you?"
They had averted their eyes.
We have become blind.
Curse the selfishness that has clouded the vision of our hearts, for we no longer see the "least of these".