I take the Red Line coming back home and I get off at Union Station. I am just one of the many of thousands who get off at that stop. You always interact, or at least pass by a variety of people: like the tourist family, the young white male intern group, the locals who enjoy walking, the professionally dressed men and women who may or may not be politicians, etc. And with that variety, there are also homeless people scattered across the station sitting by the walls or lying around in the square. As one of the highest traffic areas of DC, I imagine it’s good real estate for any beggar.
My birthday is coming up, June 30th, and the week before that, my parents visited me at DC all the way from Seattle. We spent the whole afternoon together, going to a local brewery, eating burgers, and taking pictures in the National Mall. At the end of their visit, my parents gave me their present. I told them that I needed new shoes, so as their gift, they gave me money to buy a brand new pair of shoes, as well as a Starbucks card for me to grab food when I’m on the run, and money to host all of my other fellow EYA interns to pizza.
I’ve been looking for earbuds for my commute, so after work, I decided to stop by the Hudson in Union Station. I got my earbuds and sat down on a bench to set up the Bluetooth. I was in no particular rush, so I took my time setting it up and did some people watching. As time passed, I took a particular notice toward someone who stood out in the crowd.
There was a homeless elderly black man in the middle of the walkway. He had on a white, oversized shirt covered with stains and holes, as well as baggy, torn pants. His shoes were scuffed, and his hair was in faded patches that was almost nonexistent. When I was finally made aware of him, he was quite discernible amongst the crowd; he was walking very very slowly in the opposite direction of the rush. He wasn’t holding a cup or anything, just one outstretched, open hand meaning “please help”, and spoke with a small soft mumble, barely moving his lips. What he was saying was incomprehensible, but everyone knew what he wanted. The more he walked against the current of people, the more tired his eyes became, and eventually, he just stopped and stood in place, still with one outstretched arm. Other than the quick, hurried steps of the crowd, and the occasional Union Station intercom, he was the only one making a human voice.
It was incredible thing to witness, but in the most depressing way. He was the elephant in the room. He was LITERALLY in the middle of the walkway. Yet, he was practically invisible.
And I mean, everyone knew, but no one looked. Everyone walked by, quickly, without as much as a directional glance. He did no harm to anyone. His only goal was for a simple human reaction, let alone, an interaction. Everyone knew he was staring at people walking by, but the socially accepted norm is to avoid eye contact with people like him. No one wanted to be reminded of this man’s alternate reality we so dreaded seeing, let alone believing: pure desperation. Instead, people looked at him as an “obstacle”. You didn’t want to get close, so you had to keep your distance. He offered no more a distraction than a pole, or a wall. To everyone, he was and is no one.
I had to feel something in my heart for the guy. One of the most defining aspects of asian culture is the concept of family. Meals are always shared together between grandparent, parent, and child, and because of that, whether we embrace it or not, it builds a sense of community amongst asian families. My family flew all the way out here and blessed me with a warm meal, and took me sightseeing to the outdoor areas where this man probably sleeps. Seeing people like him on the street breaks my heart because I tend to think of their family dynamic. What ideals did or didn’t their family teach them? Did he have a family? Does he remember the concept of family? Surely there was someone still left that he could turn to?
He continued to mumble softly, resiliently holding his ground against the continuous wave of people. I decided that after I set up my earbuds, I’d help him. After all, I had all of this birthday money that I’ve been getting on fine without. I already had been blessed with so much in life. I wonder what he would want? Maybe I’ll get him a nice hot bagel from a bakery. I’ll surprise him and it will be quick drop off. Yes. Oh wait, the line is too long, is there anywhere else?
It got me thinking.
Sure, there are plenty of opportunities and organizations designed for volunteers to help those in need. But do we really need to wait until we create for ourselves that sense of “organizational security” before we decide to it’s time to engage in charity? Is our mission limited only to the organizations?
After I had gotten my earbuds fixed and returned with food, I realized that it had been too late. The man was nowhere to be found. I looked immediately around the area but he was no longer there. I could have blamed bad luck, his bad luck, but no. I felt terrible. What made me hesitate with helping the man in the moment I first saw him? What stopped me from telling him to just come with me? I had taken too much time worrying about my own morality, and perhaps my image, that I forgot the original “why” that I’m doing this: it’s for him. It’s for the man in Union Station.
We recently studied a verse in Bible study, Isaiah 58:7…
“Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
But then I also second guessed that hesitation. Was I trying to help him out of pity for myself? Did I do it out of “Christian duty”, in the sense that I felt guilted to? Was it truly, truly out of the goodness of my heart? Our intentions and our beliefs may be “good”, but there is more to life than just believing in that “good”. Sometimes, I feel like we need that sense of security and acceptance from others before we can start to even think about engaging in charity, let alone social justice. We forget the fundamental teaching of what God wants us to follow: mission. And that’s something I want to work on for myself. I want it to be second nature to immediately provide that charity for others, no matter what circumstance that I’m in. I shouldn’t have to wait until I feel comfortable to provide that charity.
I realized that my mission doesn’t have to start in my worksite. It starts with the people around me. It starts with my neighbors. If I’m to carry out God’s teaching and to love ALL, then I can’t be selective with my charity. If there was no one else who stopped in the moment, who else would see him? How many “invisibles” are there in the world like him? How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday, but ignore him on Monday?
For this week, I’ve been recollecting that memory of the homeless man. He doesn’t know me, but I know of him. I wonder where he is now, and if he’s safe. And I want to use him as a lesson to myself that God provides us with opportunities for mission everywhere: we just need to take it slow and look at the world around us.
I hope he found something to eat.
–Isaiah, IFC Summer Intern