So here’s a question. When you live in a city surrounded by poverty and blight- what do you do? How do you live? Do you harden? Walk a little faster as you pass poverty on your way to a $5 latte? Accept that life has hardships, and forget the faces you see as they disappear into that space beyond memory?
Or do you live somewhere in imperfect tension- the place I call the in-between?
I am asking myself this question now. As I sit in my local downtown coffee shop, I realize I am surrounded by homeless people. At the moment, it appears 80% of the people resting in here are likely without housing, food, or access to a shower or change of clothing. One woman sleeps in a chair. She is dressed in jeans, a long shirt, a winter cap, and shoes; and she’s wearing a garbage bag on the outside of her clothing. Upon sitting, I feel compelled to buy everyone a beverage of some sort. But I don’t want to make assumptions or offend anyone, so I wait. This is going to be a fairly regular place for me to come and rest and allow my thoughts to unfold. I’m sure I will get to know all of the faces and characters as time passes.
Just as I settle into a good writing spell, I see one of the workers come over and shake the sleeping woman to the point she has to wake. When she wakes for a moment- the employee tells her she has to go and cannot sleep here.
I get it, I do. But I wonder what it must be like to be this employee; seeing people in need and having to ask them to leave? I can’t help myself. I get up, buy her an iced tea and a gift card, so she can buy herself a drink later. She may or may not be homeless. I don’t know. But she looks in need, and at a minimum- she’s tired. I figure the least I can do is extend myself in a gesture toward dignity for this woman.
The truth is- I have and continue to live a life of privilege. I do not know what it’s like to be without clothing, food, or a home. I do not know what it’s like to find comfort and rest inside a coffee shop because I have no other options.
I do know that playing judge and jury to a story I know nothing about- is not how I want to live my life.
We all have a story. We share this much. We have all been born into brokenness in varying degrees. We have all made decisions, been dealt with circumstances beyond our control, struggled through failure and regret, and been in need of grace.
I’m trying; as flawed as it might be, to straddle the in-between. I’m attempting to live in that messy space full of unanswered questions and doubt. I would rather live life open-handed, giving freely as I can.
I may not be able to change the government, people, addictions, mental illness or homelessness. But subtle acts of human kindness can and do restore a sense of worth in people. And that is powerful. That is what we all hunger, and something we can all extend to one another.
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