His coat hadn’t changed since my last visit downtown, a threadbare navy parka that wouldn’t sell at a surplus store. The zipper was broken, and the ripped lining dragged along the ground as he shuffled his legs into a more comfortable position on the concrete. Being comfortable, of course, was relative. The cold wind lashed at my ears as I watched the man adjust his baseball hat lying next to him in a reverent manner, careful not to let the change inside it jiggle too loudly. He smiled at the people brushing past and over him, but I doubted that the people even saw him. Even the ones who dropped change in his hat barely glanced at the man before turning quickly back to their cell phones and conversations and important business.
The beggar smoothed over his thinning hair, his large, callused hands moving like cinder blocks over fragile blossoms. I could not discern how old he was, anywhere from forty to sixty, and every movement was slow and deliberate. The contrast between the men and women in suits and expensive dresses who strode past him and his own unkempt appearance and slow movements was startling. I watched for a while longer until I could no longer tolerate it. I’d suffered my own discouragement lately, but after watching the man beg, my own struggles seemed vain. I headed to the bus stop to wait for my ride home.
Most of us in the West trumpet the idea of universal nobility, that is, the nobility of all men and women, no matter who they are. No matter what we profess however, our lives often indicate that dignity is reserved for the select few. There is a deep prejudice within each of us, including me. I don’t say that lightly, because I would rather cover the black scar within my own heart. The same scar that asks the homeless to get a job before I look at him, the one that asks women to lose weight or look pretty before I see them. The one that asks men to be masculine before I’ll befriend them, the one that demands politeness and proper social skills before I’ll address them, the one that demands intelligence before I’ll engage them, and the one that demands faith before I’ll consider them as a brother or a sister. The truth is that I walk past the beggar every day.
And why, because he has the greatest disease of all… the disease of unlikeness.
On the bus ride home, I stared at the advertisements on the ceiling, careful not to look at anyone, especially the women, who might misconstrue my gaze as a sign of interest or something worse. I’m safe, I wanted to shout. Instead, I let my unfocused gaze dance around the ads and allow my mind to wander. How did someone end up on the street? Perhaps it wasn’t as difficult as I’d once imagined. Maybe they’d faced the discouragement of their lives so many times they’d lost sight of their nobility. They’d lost sight of who God had created them to be. Well… that was something I could relate to. The nobility of man carried the stain of sin, but it also carried the stamp of the Creator. But if that was the case, than why hadn’t I done anything to help the man on the street?
I can’t say that I am without prejudice, I can only tell you that I don’t like it. There is a book in the Bible where the apostle Paul tells us we should dwell on the good things, the noble, the pure, the lovely, and the admirable. Which sounds easy enough, so why then, do I so often find myself grousing about the way people treat others, about the way I treat others. There are many days I feel like a tear drop in an ocean of pain and sadness. What good does it do me to focus on the lovely? Didn't this ‘great apostle’ know that the world is inherently screwed up, broken, spiteful? (He obviously never worked in a public school) And didn’t he realize that most of us don't recognize nobility, the imprint of God’s hand upon creation, or that the human preference was homogeneity... those who look and act like us?
The bus stopped at the underground station near my apartment, and I followed the herd up to the surface. It’d be a cold walk home, but somehow the gray skies suited my mood. The episode downtown had saddened me. As much for the realization that for all my observation, I’d done nothing to help the beggar on the sidewalk.
I jammed my hands deep into my pockets as the wind lashed at me along the sidewalk. I’d be the first to admit that things were not going well for me right now, that my heart felt blacker than usual. Two months ago I’d put in a twenty-five page application to volunteer at an inner city ministry in Washington, D.C. Three days ago I received my rejection, a form letter with a signature. It was, without question, a bitter blow for a man desperately looking to make a difference in this ‘sea of pain and prejudice’. Not even good enough for a volunteer mission to help people, or so I phrased my lament recently to a seemingly absent God.
“How can you ask me to focus on the ‘noble’ things, when you won’t even let me help?”
It started to snow. The flakes were thick and heavy, an odd but not unusual weather pattern for Ottawa in April. I ducked my head against the wind and pushed forward. I’d be home, warm in my apartment, in a few minutes. As I thought about the beggar, I was reminded of a recent conversation with my buddy, Mark, this past week.
“I was talking to this street guy the other day-“
“How were you talking to a street guy?” I asked.
“Well, I saw this guy on the street and invited him to Tim Hortons for a meal, and-“
“Do you do that a lot?” I said.
I was surprised. He made it sound like it was no big deal.
“A matter of increments. First I gave them change. Then I sat with them and brought them food. Now I take them for a meal.”
I stared at my friend, still shocked. You don’t have to know Mark long to appreciate him. He drives a bike, and has an unshaven, amiable personality that never changes. The company is irrelevant. Intellectually curious and yet strikingly authentic, it wasn’t that I couldn’t picture what he was doing, it was the profound nature of his act that was so shocking.
I could see my apartment building through the snow, and I quickened my pace. With a shaved head and no toque, my ears burned in the icy wind. I thought about Mark and his approach, about the apostle Paul’s words to dwell on the good things, and about my own disappointments. It struck me that the broken nature of our world can be overwhelming. I figured a lot hadn’t changed since Paul’s day.
So what did he mean when he told us to focus on the noble things? Was he telling us to focus on the good things, because the bad things, the dark things, were self-evident? Or was he reminding us of the stamp of nobility within humanity so we could be noble ourselves? Maybe that was it. Like my buddy, Mark, who was quietly encouraging the ones around him without fanfare or adulation or compensation. Instead, he was echoing the life of a certain Carpenter so many years ago who chose to enrich, and bring life, to those who had experienced so much broken-ness and hate and despair. And Mark was doing it the way Jesus Himself had done it, one person – one prostitute, one drunkard, one tax collector, one beggar – at a time.
I stopped at the door of my building. Maybe I didn’t need a great program or special internship to follow what God had called me to do. Maybe there were other people I hadn’t seen, my neighbours and other people who crossed my path, who desperately needed some love, or a meal or a hug or some prayer. Maybe part of my discouragement was that I’d stopped looking for the noble things, for the good things, in the people who so desperately needed me to see them.
I glanced at my building and turned around, back into the wind. Things hadn’t turned out the way I’d hoped, and maybe I wouldn’t be able to work in Washington’s inner city, but there was someone in downtown Ottawa who needed a meal. And maybe, a little love.