Several moths ago, on my way home from work, I encountered a young homeless woman panhandling on Church St.
This is no kind of exceptional experience in Burlington, Vt. Particularly on not too terribly cold winter days.
And because I have been homeless myself, I usually carry some loose change or some singles that I am prepared to part with. And because I have not been homeless for 13 years, I tend to hand it out in a kind of perfunctory way; because I frankly sometimes feel a little annoyed by the recipient’s inability to transcend their situation as I did.
On this day I had no change, no wallet at all in fact. And it was cold. And this girl was young. And she looked a little broken. And I felt a little guilty.
So when she asked if I had change I stopped. I said “I’m sorry” (for so very many things). I wished her a good day, and told her that I hoped she had somewhere to warm up.
She thanked me as though I had given her a $20 bill.
And when I asked her why she was thanking me she told me that she had been out in the wind for 5 hours that day. That a few people had helped her out with money. That most people said no as nicely as possible. That I was the first person to actually LOOK at her.
I have thought about her every single day since. I can see her face in my mind. If I ever see her again I am buying her lunch. And eating it with her.
It is evidence of Grace, I think, that a two minute encounter with a stranger can rock your whole world view.
My daily meditation since our meeting has been on this: Do we look at each other? And if we do, do we see each other?
There are so many good things that can be done for our fellow human, but if we do those things without seeing the humanity in the other person have we done them any service? Giving to charities, working for causes, volunteering our time; it is no different at all than giving scraps to a dog at the table if we do not SEE the people that we have the privilege of aiding.
The homeless are people.
The infirm are people.
The hungry are people.
The elderly are people.
Children are people.
We all are people, here together on this very small world.
We all are the children of a compassionate God.
Should we not aspire to a small measure of that deep compassion?
We have all been given as gifts to each other. I despair of all the things I might have learned from those that I refused to see.
I beg forgiveness daily for all of the times that I refused to accept the Grace offered to me in the guise of human interaction.
I am deeply grateful to every person who has ever looked at me and seen me.
I pray for all of us to learn to see.