7:12pm Saturday night, walking to my dinner reservation at 7:15, restaurant is a fifteen-minute walk:
Thoughts running through my head as I power-walked:
Ugh, light please turn red.
I am so hungry.
Come on, people, move out of the way.
Can you hurry up?
I am so hungry.
I’m going to be late to my reservation.
Can you move????
I am definitely sweating.
Do you think I’ll lose points on OpenTable if I get there late?
Does anyone even care that I might have somewhere to be and they’re gallivanting in front of me and blocking the road entirely?
And then I see him. I’ve seen so many like him, but he was different. He made me stop—my ridiculous thoughts and my little legs, too. I couldn’t move, captivated by this man, his face, his clothes, his situation.
I’ve seen many homeless people in DC. There are 7,473 of them, per the last count that probably only included about 2/3 of the total homeless population. This is up 8.9% over the last five years.
This man was lying in a sleeping bag on the lawn of a church staked with Pride flags, a Black Lives Matter poster, and EQUALITY posters. His face expressed total anguish and he was shivering, despite the 92-degree weather and extra-thick sleeping bag.
I felt in the moment, dramatically and in classic artist-fashion, that this was the PERFECT metaphor for EVERYTHING that is wrong with the world: we wave our flags and sing our church songs while the homeless population rises and they sleep on the church’s lawns and hope that, maybe, just maybe, someone might nod as she walks by.
I didn’t even nod.
I just stared.
And then I kept walking.
I just stared!!!!!
I just stared.
At a party Friday night, I watched as my best friend was completely walked all over. She had bought us wine, a kind that she was so excited for me to try because I am a sucker for sparkling white wine. She placed it on the table and turned to us: “Want some?”
She turned back around, and a girl had grabbed the wine, opened it herself, and began drinking straight out of the bottle. She then proceeded to walk away with the bottle, put her arms around a guy who had a serious boyfriend, and talk about how great the wine was.
I just stared.
I just stared!!!!!!!
I’m the one who stares at the homeless man, stares at Wine Girl, and sits back and does nothing.
I am amazed at my ability to watch so much injustice, and to bottle those thoughts up inside myself and not engage with the people who are dealing with that injustice.
I am amazed by our collective disengagement.
Engagement is not just flying flags or educating ourselves or attending marches or changing our Facebook profile pictures or convening a group of other annoyed people and discussing over expensive coffee how screwed up the world is.
Engagement is seeing injustice and creating relationships right in the middle of it.
If we weren’t so disengaged, would Wine Girl really take that wine? Or would someone walk up to her and ask her why she did it, if she understood what she did, and how she could think about not doing it next time? If we weren’t so disconnected, would Homeless Man be lying on the grass by himself? Or would someone be checking on him, talking with him, helping him?
A lot of unfortunate moments happen because of compounded previous moments where people failed to engage, to connect, to build a relationship. Much of the world’s injustice exists because we stay in our little thoughts instead of stepping outside ourselves and creating crucial relationships. These relationships enable us to empathize, to understand a problem, to look for solutions, and to believe in those who need help.
I have walked by SO many homeless people in this city and not even acknowledged them. Yet I read countless articles on the horrors of the homeless population, work at an anti-poverty organization, and study global health and public policy. But I’m simply staring at words, not using those words to create real relationships with the people those words were written about.
I am a Christian. My faith is important to me. I believe that Jesus changes hearts and that the world, my life, and so many others’ lives are so much better because of a Savior who died for us and offered us eternal life, abounding grace, and unconditional love. But here I am, a church-goer of a collective church like the one I walked by, with lots of flags but little relationships, with lots of words but little action, with lots of theory but little practice. Homeless people sleep outside churches, and we stare. (Not every church is like this. In fact, I find it amazing the amount of mission work my church does, most which is done in Durham and around the US. But, still, many churches, and many people, are filled with ideas and not relationships.)
I am tired of staring. I am tired of many of us staring instead of engaging.
Engagement is telling Wine Girl that life is about more than hooking up with boys and looking cute. Engagement is telling her that sometimes a friend spends time and hard-earned money to buy wine for her friend and is offended when you take it. Engagement is telling her that other lives are being lived around you, and that they don’t all revolve around you, either. Engagement is giving her a chance, walking up to her and saying, “hey, why did you do that? How can we talk about this?” Engagement is offering her empathy, considering that maybe she just didn’t know—maybe she’s never known—that there could be more to life.
Engagement is not just sitting inside the church, but sitting outside the church, on the lawn, next to our dear friends who may have given up on the world because they are tired of everyone just staring.
I started this blog because I am obsessed with the idea that if we were all just a little more vulnerable, a little more empathetic, a little more gracious and open-minded, we might see the amazing potential for relationships all around us. And while I am so thankful to have made so many relationships through this blog, and to have helped so many other people make relationships, that all means nothing if I am not making relationships with the people around me whom I see experiencing so much injustice. So this post is for The Man On The Lawn and Wine Girl with whom I failed to connect. This post is for Man Outside Krispy Kreme, Man Outside Fudruckers, Man Outside My Dorm, Woman Outside Foggy Bottom, and all the other people who deserve my empathy and vulnerability. This post is a visual promise to do better, to try harder, to seek you all out for real relationships and real connection. Because if I really want to make change in this world, I can’t just write words. I have to build relationships. I have to engage.