Not long ago I was in Oaxaca City with a mission group that was led by two priests. We had paused by some church or other when we noticed an old woman on the steps. She was tiny, as most Oaxacans are, and she was begging.
Maybe she asked for money, maybe she didn’t, but the older priest, the one whose Spanish wasn’t so good, but whose heart was wide open, sat down beside her. It was an entirely spontaneous act–he was simply responding in his role as priest, a role that is never far from these guys’ consciousness. Just like we never forget our role as parent.
He chatted with her for a few moments–she probably told him her story. I’d seen that happen again and again in this country where the old always had a story; they loved telling it to the Anglo priest, and it was usually sad. He said a prayer and blessed her. He probably touched her–laid his hand on her head or took her hand–I can’t remember. He left her with a peaceful smile and with something more meaningful than money.
* * *
I’ve just come from six weeks in New York City, where there is misery of all sorts–addicts, alcoholics, mentally ill, and screwups of every color. The misery lives side-by-side with people like me. People who just want to get from point A to B without having our person or our psyche messed with. So people put on earphones; they stare at the floor; they don’t make eye contact; and they don’t respond in any way to the most insane occurences. Someone begins a rant on the subway–no one moves. Someone turns a somersault on the floor–no response.
As with most big cities and poor countries, the need is raw, ugly, and overwhelming.
This environment challenged me. I wasn’t about to pull a Mother Teresa number. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that’s not my calling. Besides, the poverty here is different. You just don’t go around picking up people from the sidewalk.
Or do you? For three days, I walked by a man lying on the sidewalk on my way to the hospital to see my daughter. This was near Columbus Circle–a busy, touristy area–home to Time Warner and CNN. Right next to the fruit stall. Gray, frizzy hair and bare skin stuck out from a filthy blanket. He was barefoot and his feet were indescribable. He would sometimes switch to a different patch of sidewalk to get out of the sun, but I never saw him move. Not in the heat, not in the drizzly rain.
He bothered my conscience. How could I, a fellow human being, literally step over this person who seemed to be dying on the street? But what could I do? I couldn’t call the department that handles people dying on the sidewalk. I couldn’t pick him up and take him home. I walked by for two days, then out of disgust at my own temerity, I put together a little care package for a man, probably without teeth who was lying on the sidewalk–water, fruit, power bar. I just thought I’d leave it beside him, and I was even nervous about that.
He wasn’t there. Maybe there IS such a city department or maybe he died. But he was a reproach to my humanity and my conscience.
Two more times, I had close encounters with abject misery, and both times I looked away, pretended not to see. Truth be told, I was repulsed. Nauseated, even.
I wrestle with how to respond to these situations. What ought I to do as a believer and a member of the same species? What is my responsibility to my fellow human? Who is my brother? I still don’t know, but I’m returning to the city this winter for several months, and I’d like to go with greater wisdom and an lighter conscience.
What I do know: Money is easy, and it rarely solves anything. Human compassion and contact is hard, but that’s what helps and heals. I saw that in action in Oaxaca.
I need to hear your thoughts.