24 November 2010
Dignity, Homelessness and the Amazing Chain
Dignity. The dictionary defines it like this:
–noun 1. bearing, conduct, or speech indicative of self-respect or appreciation of the formality or gravity of an occasion or situation.
I witnessed this dignity in a homeless man this past Monday night, and as we start this Thanksgiving/Christmas season, I keep thinking about him. And about the way things fall right into place, just the way they are supposed to.
This past Monday, we visited our homeless friends on the streets of Los Angeles. Our monthly homeless outreach has been going strong for three years now. With the decline of the economy, we are seeing even more homeless on the streets. As usual, we were equipped with soup, water, snacks. We had a full pickup truck of clothing, and by a kind donation we also had some emergency mylar blankets and ponchos.
We pulled up to our first stop around 8:00 p.m. 4th Street and San Pedro. There's a small encampment there of people living in boxes (if they are lucky to have a box), and on the sidewalk itself. It's cold. A man came up to me and asked if I would have a pair of shoes for him. He said he had shoes, and if we didn't have any, that was fine. But his shoes were canvas, and it had been raining.... No worries. I set out to the back of the pick up to find him some shoes. Digging around, I found a pair of leather high top shoes. I held them up. "Can you use these?" He looked. He smiled. He said, "Those look great. I hope they fit. I won't take them if they don't though. Let me try them on." I grabbed him a pair of socks, and he set out to try on the shoes. In the meantime, I asked him if he could use some soup? an emergency blanket? how about a poncho. "I'm good," he said. "I have everything I need. But thank you."
The shoes fit. He was smiling....and stomping around in the shoes. Then he did something very few on the streets would do. He handed me his canvas shoes, and said, "I'll donate these to you. They're worn, but someone else can make some use of them. Oh, and I'd like to give you a donation." When I thanked him but said it wasn't necessary, he said, "Oh, no, I know it's not necessary, but I'd like to. It's important that we help one another. And your group is here helping us." He pulled out $2 from his pocket and handed it to me with thanks. "God bless you guys. And Happy Thanksgiving to you."
Wow. I was touched by his manner. He looked like all he had was the clothing on his back and the new shoes on his feet. But he was happy. He didn't want to take, without giving back. Yet he was worn. You could tell he had been on the streets for a long time. The man had dignity.
The evening went on. At each of the stops we fed and clothed. I met a man that couldn't speak, and we had a little fun as he would point at various items of clothing and try to "ask" me for certain items. I'd get a thumbs up if I guessed correctly....and a smile. I had a great time with our crew, two of which were first timers. At each stop though, I would try to find some feet for the canvas converse shoes that were donated so generously. But no takers.
At our last stop, the lines for food were huge. Hungry people lined up as our crew poured hot water into the cup-o-noodles. At the pick up we were busy finding clothing for people. We never have enough warm clothing, the need is so great. But we actually did have enough where everyone who approached us got something. When the lines had died down, we announced it was time to pack up. That's when Selin, our newest crew member, asked me in Armenian, "Do you think you have some shoes and socks for this man? He's barefoot." I looked to find a man, standing in shorts and a tshirt waiting for soup.
The shoes! I ran back to the truck. It was almost empty, but the shoes were there along with a few pairs of mismatched socks. By the time I returned the man was gone. Luckily, Aram had seen where he went. He was back in his box. The two of us went to this man's home and knocked on the box. He peeked out and we offered him the shoes and socks. And they were perfect.
When I think about how it all worked that night, I don't know why I shouldn't expect it to work out that way from the beginning. Through God's grace, all things are possible (and probable). The man that donated the shoes at the first stop had a reason for doing so. The fact that there wasn't a match for them at our other stops was also meant to be. The barefoot recipient of the shoes was supposed to be in line, barefoot. And Selin, being new to our ministry, was supposed to be right where she was, distributing the soup and taking it all in, in order to take compassion upon this man and ask that we might have shoes and socks for him. It's an amazing chain this way. Everyone has something they can give: be it a smile, a thank you, a pair of shoes, a compassionate heart, a kind word, an ear to listen.
And what happened to the $2 donation? At our church we have a prayer box. Each Sunday, prayer requests are read during the divine liturgy and we pray for those mentioned. A donation was made with the $2 for the Hungry and the Homeless of our city. My prayers are with them for sure.
This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the opportunity to learn some very valuable life lessons from those who have nothing but their dignity. They have so much.