I noticed him walking toward us as we headed down a street I didn’t know. Chicago is a big city, I’m a little directionally challenged, and it was just me and Sarah, my grown daughter. I wasn’t sure what this homeless man would do. Was he mentally ill?
As he came near and started asking us for money, I stared at the street in front of me, muttered a gruff, “Sorry, no,” and walked on.
“WHAT? YOU NOT GOING TO EVEN LOOK AT ME?” he said loudly, and an alarm went off inside my brain.
“The worst thing about being homeless,” a social worker friend once told me, “is that you feel unseen. That you become invisible. That people stop treating you as a human being. ”
I was one of those people.
“No,” I said, catching myself, immediately looking into his eyes. “I see you. I’m sorry.”
He was around Sarah’s age, and as he walked in step with us, he started rattling off a long list of people he knew who’d been mistreated because they lived on the streets or because they were black like him, and we listened. It was sad and it sounded true. Then he told us how he’d been arrested 75 times for nothing, and how the last time the police even took his ID, so now he’s in a real fix, but could we give him $100?”
“No, I don’t have $100 to give you,” Sarah said to him, “but I hear you.” He talked a while longer as we walked, and then he moved on to someone else.
Afterwards, I thought about my reaction, my instinct to pretend he wasn’t there. I was frightened of what he might do, so out of my fear I turned him invisible. Poof. I chose not to see him.
Some people would say you have to take care of yourself, that you shouldn’t be stupid and invite risk. Others would say this is exactly what we’re called to do as people of faith. That our constant challenge is to choose love over fear. Jesus never guaranteed safety when we stand up for love. It’s almost Easter, after all. Look at what happened to him.
Give yourself a break, I hear. Isn’t turning people invisible when we’re afraid just what humans do? It is what we do these days. We pretend the families trying to cross our borders aren’t people like us. That the children taken from their parents aren’t like our kids. That the families in Flint Michigan who don’t have safe drinking water don’t really exist or there can’t be that many of them. It can’t really be that bad, can it? That the people in Puerto Rico can’t still be suffering that much. We plug our ears and sing La la la la. Poof. You’re invisible!
We do it with things that disrupt our comfort like climate change (la la la la) and with anything that threatens ideas we’ve always held close. Take me, for example. I recently bought Short Stories by Jesus, a book written by Amy-Jill Levine, a self-described “Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt.” I thought it sounded interesting and challenging even, to get a view of how first century Christians really would have heard his parables. But once I started reading and realized how differently she presents these stories that Jesus told, ones I’ve lived my whole life knowing and loving- I started putting on the brakes. I’m all for learning new things, as long as they feather nicely into my own ideas (!) but when they turn everything upside down, maybe I don’t like having my ideas challenged. Poof! You’re invisible, Amy-Jill!
But still the book rests on my table, calling to me. I will read it and learn. Then I’ll decide what to do with it. But I’ll admit it. I’m a little disappointed that she’s not confirming what I always believed.
It’s much easier to stay comfortable, isn’t it? Darn you, Jesus, for calling us to lives of truth and love, not comfort. In order to love, I guess first we have to take a hard look. We have to see what’s in front of us.
Jesus saw people, the outcasts, the ones on the edge, over the edge, in the shadows. The ones whom others turned invisible. He saw them all and loved them all and sought them out as treasured children of God. He even saw the persnickety know it alls, the religious jerks. There was a danger in what he did, putting himself out there to love, but he kept doing it, even on the cross, with the man hanging beside him, even to the people who put him there.
At the end of our stay in Chicago, we got on the Blue Line to the airport. A few seats up ahead of us sat a dirty man in tattered clothes, furiously fingering his backpack and several bags. As he got closer to his stop, I watched him take out a cardboard sign and get ready to get off the train. I stole a glance at the words scrawled in marker. HUNGRY Your kindness feeds me. Bless.
The cynic in me says, “You had fare for the subway? So this is your job?”
But the Christ lover reads his sign.
Kindness feeds. The world is hungry.