Invisible people

15

Author: Eileen Lee

“How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” — C.S. Lewis

I am terrible at meeting new people. My people skills improve fantastically if someone takes the initiative to introduce themselves, or if a mutual friend does the honors. But if not, I will sit and wait in a corner and entertain myself until it is all over, like a true introvert.

So when I happened to glance up on a walk around my hometown and see Steve standing on a street corner with a cardboard sign and a hat for collecting change, I was put in a tight place. Besides shyness, introversion also tends to grant enhanced skills of introspection. In that moment, I knew myself well enough to know that I would wholeheartedly regret it later if I did not stop to at least ask his name. I already regretted a whole sea of faces in my memory—human after human I had seen on sidewalks, highway exits and intersections through the years, but whose names I never learned for reasons that were weighty in the moment but became shoddy once the people were out of my line of sight.

These thoughts unfortunately did not change the fact that I was still very shy. I walked around the same intersection, trying to make a decision—would I pass on, or stop? I rounded the intersection again and again, mumbling and retorting in prayer that it wasn’t fair of God to ask so much of such a serious introvert. I must have looked like a very confused, if not slightly mad, person.

On my near seventh time around the intersection, I drew close to Steve’s corner again. I almost lost my nerve (again), but I guess Jesus intervened. Just as I was coming up to him (again), Steve looked up and straight into my eyes. I knew then that passing on was not an option. Though introversion is a legitimate characteristic of my personality, I realized in that moment that it could no longer be my scapegoat. While being an introvert makes me shy, it does not excuse me from refusing to acknowledge another’s humanity.

I extended my hand and introduced myself. When I asked if I could sit down next to him, Steve smiled and said I was very welcome to do so. In retrospect, we must have looked a little odd, sitting on the corner of that sidewalk together: a tall, Caucasian man in all soldier’s neutrals next to me, an Asian girl under five feet tall with a tendency to dress in bright colors.

I asked the first thing that came into my head, the first thing my mother would have asked: I asked if he’d eaten breakfast that day. He held out a half-eaten bar and nodded slightly. I asked him if he was going to eat lunch; he looked at his granola bar and shrugged.

I scampered to Starbucks and brought back a caramel cappuccino, a hot ham and cheese sandwich and a fruit bowl. We proceeded to have an odd picnic, on that corner of 3rd and Pine. The sandwich was gone in two minutes. But when he opened the fruit bowl, he offered half to me. He insisted that I should eat, so we shared the grapes.

As we ate, he asked about me. Was my summer going well? Was I local? Did I have any siblings? What did I want to study? What did I want to be in the future? And as I answered, I read his cardboard sign. Navy veteran, served with honor. Homeless. Anything helps. God bless.

Then I asked about him. He told me he had served nine years in the Middle East, but in 2006, he lost his wife, his son and his home. He had been on the streets of downtown Seattle ever since. He had a grandson—four years old the last time he saw him, many years ago. Just last week, his wallet had been stolen, but a well-off friend was helping him get a new ID.

Later, he showed me how he tested the streets each day. Ask for a cigarette, he told me. If no one wants to give you even just a cigarette, they are not going to give you anything at all. Out of the maybe hundred people who passed in that hour, one person stopped and gave him a cigarette. A couple others dropped some change or snacks. Some would smile quickly and keep going, but most did not stop at all. He thanked every one of them, bowing his head.

Curious, frustrated with all the seemingly uncaring pedestrians and ashamed of my own initial reluctance to approach him, I asked Steve why people did not stop or give as much as they had in years past. I wanted to know the condition; the diagnosis of our hearts. Was it because people were becoming meaner, more stingy or perhaps less trusting? His response was completely unexpected.

“No,” he said, glancing up at the passing mass of people, “It’s that people are more scared. They look at me, and they’re afraid of being a step away from ending up exactly where I am. They’re afraid to be me.”

Steve said this in reference to the economy and people’s fears about money. But the more I have reflected on it, the more I think it actually goes much deeper as well. We have a tendency to desperately want everything to be okay, and surround ourselves with everything from hobbies to the Internet to reassure ourselves that things will work out. And when certain things remind us that it just might not be so, we are quick to disregard, ignore or come up with a quick fix and move on.

When people looked at Steve and walked away, perhaps they were legitimately busy or did not have anything to give. But I think perhaps also in that moment, they saw an image of the human struggle. Somewhere inside, it made them uncomfortable or even fearful, because it reminded them of their own struggles, their own frailty and the frailty of the “okay-ness” that they constructed for themselves. So instead of confronting this, they made him invisible to their eyes.

The problem here is that it produces injustice not only for ourselves, but for those we ignore for the sake of everything being okay. This is especially demonstrated in people’s treatment of the homeless population as invisible people. However, it extends further than that, to peers, friends, family and even ourselves. This is not a problem isolated to the Christian Church. It is a human one.

Hearing Steve’s story hurt. It made me realize just how unfair circumstances in life can be, and it was discouraging to realize how little power I had to change that. It brought my own weaknesses to the forefront of my mind, and uncomfortably so. But it is not justice to ignore a fellow human because it removes us from our comfortable sense of okay-ness. Perhaps it is easier, but it is not justice.

On that day, Steve and I were able to come together, human to human. And though we shared in the bitterness, we also shared in the sweetness of life, in words and in grapes. We were not nameless nor faceless to one another. We were not invisible to one another.

From our peers, to the homeless to our own families—who can all be invisible people to us if we choose—it is sharing, not shying away from each other’s humanity, that is the root of all justice we desire in this world. May all have faces and names to us; may we decide that there are no invisible people. That is the inherent beginning of justice, and it shall begin nowhere else until it is so.

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