Dirty chai in hand, I stared out of a Starbucks window, watching a presumably homeless man approach customers as they left. It was a typical scene: homeless man walks up to couple, couple ignores homeless man. I could only imagine his simple plea: asking for whatever they could spare for someone in need, yet they acted as though he wasn’t there.
I prepared to leave, wrapping my thick scarf around my neck and grabbing the only cash I had in one hand. Walking out, the man swiftly lunged his body in my path and asked to speak with me: “It has nothing to do with money.” he reassured. ‘Oh,’ I thought, feeling uncomfortable about the plans I had for the dollar that was in my hand. He continued to explain how he was just released from prison and was homeless and asked if I could help him get food.
I contemplated other ways I could help besides the measly dollar I planned to give, yet all I could think about was the bus I had to catch in 11 minutes. Anxious about being late, I handed him the dollar and walked away with his name: Joey. As I turned the corner, I was confronted by a hot dog cart. ‘Does he take cards?’ I thought. I hesitated and something in me wanted to run back to fulfill Joey’s request, but my feet kept moving forward.
I immediately felt convicted. I fought with myself: ‘Why aren’t you walking back? You could call someone to pick you up, you could take an Uber, you can be late… Go back and get him some food!’
But my feet kept moving forward.
Now on the bus, I tried to justify why an act of compassion was optional. I selfishly thought entirely about my own agenda, but what about God’s? This soul was hungry. I could have bought him food. I could have prayed with him. I could have spoken with him and gotten to know his story. I should have turned around and given him the love that God has given me; a love that says ‘You’re not invisible… Your life matters… You matter!’ I should have extended a love that offers hope and brings peace. This was God’s agenda – this is always God’s agenda. Instead, I kept it for myself and kept moving forward.
The God I serve calls for a heart that loves selflessly. Jesus commands us to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself. “There is no other commandment greater than these,” proclaims Jesus (Mark 12:29-31). So if I love myself, why was it ok to treat Joey any less?
Hours later, the Lord brought Joey to my remembrance and my heart began to break. Before I knew it I was weeping uncontrollably. I prayed for Joey’s safety, comfort and heart. In that painful moment, I was confronted with my own hypocrisy and I realized that I needed to pray for myself first.
Is it not true that our egocentricity has desensitized us to the needs of other people? No longer do we look beyond circumstance and behavior to see our neighbor – to acknowledge their existence and recognize their need. Our empathy has turned into apathy and now the woman being trafficked is just a prostitute who chooses to sell her body instead of getting a real job; the homeless man, lacking ambition, has made terrible decisions and will continue to make terrible decisions; and the child acting out in class is just a bad kid who deserves suspension after suspension. How deep are these mindsets embedded into our everyday lives?
When we fail to acknowledge people and focus solely on what they have done or how they live, we dehumanize them. Once we see a person as an object, or rather an obstacle, it is easy to lose sight of our likeness and connection. In turn, making it easier for our heart to grow cold and loose love for our fellow man.
At the foundation of our humanity is our capacity to love, and that means loving even when it’s difficult or profits you nothing. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. submits that “the time is always right to do what is right...” and that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience…but at times of challenge and controversy.” These wise words prompt us to ask: Do I only love when it’s convenient for me? Do I only love when I’ll be acknowledged? Can I only forgive when there’s no challenge? Do I honestly see all people as human? Recognize that your neighbor isn’t just the person living in the domain next to you, but is the person next to you who is living in this domain of life. If we lose our capacity to love one another, we have lost all of who we are as humans.
This year, the Lord calls for a reexamination of the heart. If you have given territory to selfishness, pride, self-righteousness, bitterness; find a way to reconcile it or it will become the very reason you fail to give and receive love. Unlike my own encounter, a society deficient of love will not allow for forward movement as a nation or as a people.