One of the biggest surprises that came with moving from the leafy, affluent suburb of St Ives to picturesque beachside Manly was the community of homeless people I now regularly encounter.
There’s a few crazies accosting tourists with bourbon-breath getting dragged away by police, but most of them are harmless, camped out in a wind shelter under piles of blankets. Something happens to my heart every time I see them. I feel sad and helpless…and that of all the people who should be doing something, it should be me. I call myself a Christian, right!?
And then the other day, I realised my opportunity. There’s this one guy who sits under the window of a fancy restaurant overlooking the beach, just out of sight of its patrons sipping organic, ethically sourced Ethiopian lattes. He has dirty, sandy dreadlocks that trail down his body and onto the ground and thick leathery skin; tanned and mottled. My friend and I have started power walking every morning at 7am. We power walk right past him. Every time I see him, his eyes are closed and there’s a half smile on his face as the suns rays start to warm the beach.
One day, he’s wearing headphones and the same half-smile
Something happens to my heart, but I’m not sure its sympathy anymore. I shrug it off and decide that today will be the day I look him in the eyes, and smile. As my friend and I are walking towards him I gear myself up. Here we go. Right in the eyes, acknowledging his humanity. A smile that says you are worthy. We draw closer. I’m staring him down. It probably looks a little intense, like I’m trying to work out if he’s my long-lost father or something. His eyes are closed with the same half smile and I realise he’s not going to look up at me. The epiphany suddenly hits me with the subtly of a freight train: he doesn’t need my sympathy smile. He has this beautiful creation in front of him, the sun shining down on his face. I’m the one who needs to feel like I’m doing something. I’m the one who needs to feel like a good samaritan.
This isn’t about him at all
Jean Vanier, who started L’Arche, disabilities housing communities around the world, writes of weakness. We live in societies so driven by success, the need to produce and consume, that we are uncomfortable by those who are unable to do so. They remind us that despite our best efforts, we will be in their position one day, dependent on others. And this is the circle of life: we begin dependent on our mothers, we end at the mercy of nurses or family. People who are in this position their entire lives are alien to us.
So perhaps my need to ‘do something good’ is actually a cover for feeling uncomfortable by this person I can’t relate to. Maybe it’s not actually his poverty affecting me, but mine. I’m the one failing to take in God’s beautiful creation and am more concerned about what I’m supposed to be doing. I think I would be saved if one day he looked up and smiled at me.
Cherie Lee leads many lives: by night she writes, by day she works with intellectually disabled people and some nights, she goes and fights injustice with her team of crime-fighting cats, who also have many lives.