Saturday, March 20, 2004

The Least of These

Apparently, I come from a very small town. I didn't realize this until someone at Redeemer enlightened me a year or so ago; Tweed is small, Picton is small, Bloomfield is small, Madoc is small--Belleville is definitely not small. But, compared to Hamilton, London, Peterborough, Toronto (and surrounding area), Ottawa and all of these other cities, Belleville really is lacking in the big city-ish aspects.
This is something that I am realizing more and more, as I live in Oxford (well, Charlbury really, but I spend every day in Oxford) and become familiar with London. It feels like a different world. Yes, it's a different country but I am positive that it exists just as much or more in Ontario. What is the defining difference? Well, obviously the cities are dirtier--as beautiful as Oxford is, it's filthy (and there are some alleyways that just need to be avoided due to stench). It's not the dirt or the smell that make the difference to me: it's the fact that I can't walk for more that two minutes on the sidewalks or in the alleys without passing someone sitting on there, leaning against a building. Sometimes, they're playing a harmonica or recorder, sometimes, they're wrapped in a blanket, sometimes they've got a dog beside them. But always, they look at me as I walk past- some say as much as they can before I pass by -'Excuse me miss I hate to ask but.....' and I'm past. Others don't say anything at all. They just sit there, looking, watching people pretend not to notice, carry on as if there might only be some obstacle on the ground that they must walk around.
My reaction, which I've partially described, is usually to look away, look straight forward, sidestep, and keep going. Everything that I've been told about 'these people' comes to mind, don't give them money cause they'll probably spend it on alcohol, take them out for something to eat instead, some of these people on the streets are probably making more money that a percentage of those actually working.... This is not very useful information to have in my head. Ok, don't give them money, easy enough if they're going to spend it on alcohol, they've probably got a huge amount stashed away anyway.
But what if I don't have the time to convince someone to let me take them into the nearest pastry shop and buy them lunch, what if I've got a lecture to go to, a train to catch? That leaves me doing what I've been doing for the past two months: Walking by.
This bothers me a great deal. It's not something that a person can do, day after day, and not feel the guilt of ignorance, or of refusal, rather. At least, it's not something that I can do. This has left me with the question I've asked myself over and over- what is it that I can do then? If I do give money, I can't give to everyone, and I can't give every day- truth be told, I really am a student and I've got a student's bank account to prove it (and I have to survive in this country for another month and a half). I get struck with a defeatist attitude: I can't do everything, so I can't do anything.
When Cara and I got together for prayer last week, we spent a long time talking about this subject and our respective struggles with it. We came to the conclusion that while we couldn't do something for everyone, we'd make an effort to have something with us, whether a granola bar or something else, that we could give to someone if, when passing by, we really felt a particular burden for that person. Good idea in theory, but as a result of my wonderful memory, I forgot every day this week. And now, play practice begins next week so we don't get to go into Oxford until the 30th of April.
When I went to see Les Mis, there was one song in particular that struck me, although I can't remember much of it now, but the general idea was telling people to look down as they walked through the streets, see those that are there and know that they're real people. This has also been weighing on my mind. I noticed at the beginning of this week that I have a tendency to walk to the other side of the street if there's someone on the ground on the side I was walking. Upon noting that, I made an effort to not change sidewalks the next time. And I looked at the man and smiled. Today, on my way to the trainstation, I said hello to the man playing the harmonica and he looked at me, smiled, said 'hello miss' and gave me a thumbs up. I know that it's not enough to do just this, but I think that it's somewhere to start; they are, after all, very real people, and should be seen as such. I'm not through with my search, though.

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