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I was watching her from the car. A thin agitated young woman. With a makeover she would have been pert and pretty. But she was shabby and unkempt, frantically packing and unpacking the contents of her bag on the steps of the church.
Her anxiety was crazily contagious, recalling vague memories of loss and panic of my own. I longed for her to find what she was looking for so desperately but the obsessive ritual was stuck, an end in itself. Between her failures she stood for a few moments with the characteristic shakes and convulsions of the crack addict.
It could have been the seedy other side of the tracks in any great city. But it seemed, more than anywhere else I had been to, to be the flagrantly unfragant bottom of the heap, where all the flotsam and jetsam, those who hadn’t made it and never would, the social, emotional, educational failures, had been flung. It was so painfully other that it evoked, apart from a pure human pathos, without which one would have been accused by one’s own inhumanity, a kind of rapport or solidarity among whoever ventured into its alien, other country.
This strange rapport among those outside the camp of those outside the walls could lead in different directions. A right-wing group of politicians would grudgingly admit that for these social failures an emergency contingency fund could be used to help them out. Some vote-winning, conscience-easing projects might even be started. But a shelter where they could use clean needles would be going too far. In the end people must take responsibility for themselves. Vice should not be subsidized by the virtuous. And in a self-styled democracy based on equal opportunity (for those who are already better off), those who can’t make it, well… it’s sad.
For others visiting this netherworld of a half dozen city blocks, an uneasy solidarity with its inhabitants of outsiders can be felt. You will always be outside those who have slipped into a permanent state of being outside unless you are there yourself. But there are moments of luminous intimacy only possible among those for whom pretence would be foolish and futile. If one of these people, for whom a few streets are their place of survival and a few corners their places of fellowship were to become pretentious, raking up memories of their education or status before they fell, then a look of compassionate humour might pass discretely among their fellows, who had heard it before, and the outside visitor who doesn’t quite know how to react. It reveals the curious, authentic, hopeful dignity of those who have been stripped of everything. As with the original Cross.
I once went for a walk in the winter countryside with a local countryman. For me there was only the barren beauty of frozen fields and bare trees. As my companion shared his observations about the land I realised how deep and ridiculous was my ignorance and blindness to what was around me. Where I saw the same blankness he recognised signs of the cultivation the farmer had been doing the day before or even the frailest signs of spring. There is always a story to tell. Especially when it seems the story is finished.
In the nineteenth century the philanthropic Midas, Andrew Carnegie built libraries around N. American cities to bring culture to the poor. There was one here on a corner where Bruegel like figures paraded around a major drug spot. One dressed in a long Matrix overcoat particularly sought attention. I mentioned this thought to my guide and was overheard by someone who shot me a knowing smile. Another moment of connection under the radar in a place where there are no private conversations.
Outside the library, unsocially placed in the middle of the sidewalk, there were two chairs. On one sat an alternatively dressed young man who was clearly, however, like us a visitor to this world. On the other a card propped on the chair invited anyone to “sit down and tell me your story”. We asked him how many had done so and he said one so far that day.
There are many who feel called to help those worse off than themselves and they can only use the gifts they have to do so. But it is not so much what you give them as how you treat people that matters. We visited a church converted into a shelter for the homeless. The warden showed us the old sanctuary, that you walk into straight off the street, now filled with bunkbeds for the men. “But we are moving the men’s beds upstairs,” she said. “It’s undignified for them to sleep exposed in this public space”. It is the mind of Christ that can see that.
Laurence Freeman OSB
The World Community for Christian Meditation, of which Laurence Freeman OSB is director, has recently opened a new outreach program – “Meditatio” (www.wccmmeditatio.org)