Walking to our hotel for the first time a little before midnight, I noticed a man curled up asleep on the church steps. The next morning I went through an underpass on a run and a group of people were picking up flattened cardboard boxes that served as their mattresses the previous night. Everyday I was asked if I could spare some change. Every block or so was a man or a woman with a cardboard sign.
Mother of two children with cancer.
And almost all of them ended with:
I didn’t usually have cash on me and so I would often put blinders on as we strode by. I didn’t want to make eye contact that would get up their hopes, only to walk past them like everyone else. But that didn’t feel right. These were men and women with needs. Sure some might have gotten themselves into their impoverished situation and some might have been trying to hustle the compassionate or guilty on the street. But many were not and it’s not my place to judge which was which.
I often wonder what happens to people that live in the city. It would be hard to see that everyday as you go to a job, eat three meals, and return to a home. It pricked at my conscience as I was there for a vacation in which I got to stay in a nice hotel. Does one become numb to it all just to cope?
Wednesday night, EA and I ate at an Italian restaurant. At this restaurant it is customary for them to bag up another pasta for you to take home. We knew we weren’t going to bring it back on the flight with us when we left and so we agreed we’d give it to someone we saw on the street. This meant that I was going to have to engage a total stranger, which is not exactly a strong suit of mine.
I carried that paper bag of boxed-up lasagna for a hour or so. It went with us to the top of Willis Tower. We looked out at Chicago from 103 stories up. From up there everything looks so pristine, lights glimmering in the night sky. It’s easy to forget that there are any problems from so far away.
We got back on the L to return to our hotel. A couple of blocks after we got off at our station, I saw a man with a cardboard sign leaning next to a brownstone building. He was talking with a passerby. I walked about fifteen steps. Stopped and walked back to him.
Me: Do you like lasagna?
Me: (handing him the bag) Have at it.
Man: Thank you. God bless you.
I walked away. And I regret walking away that quickly. I wish I had said “God bless you” to him. I wish that I might have done something else because I worry I was dumping off food I didn’t need to soothe a guilty conscience. But it was late, I didn’t know him, and so I just walked away. I wish I could apologize to this man for that. I hope that he will find God’s blessing in his life.
Jesus and the prophets spoke so much about giving to the poor. That giving is more than just food, but time, compassion, an ear to listen. I feel like the church as a whole is doing a better job understanding that. But I also feel like in middle and upper class America, we have cocooned ourselves to where we don’t have to see and encounter those in need. Therefore, we don’t have to act in response. We cannot—I cannot—be satisfied with that.
Obviously from my story, I don’t know exactly what to do. But it gnaws at me that we need to do something.