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Last Wednesday morning, my alarm went off at six thirty, which is significantly earlier than my usual routine (eight o’clock is a more manageable hour for me). Bleary eyed and barefoot, I quietly padded into the kitchen of New York City Relief’s headquarters to find myself a cup of coffee – a necessity no matter what city, country, or continent. Even at that early hour, cheery voices were floating from the surrounding offices as the Relief Bus staff began arriving, gearing up for the day of service ahead.
Coming to New York to work with a homeless ministry… I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. My experience with people living on the street is mostly relegated to developing countries, and the issues that face those people there are much different than the people here in the United States.
The various reasons leading to homelessness are complex and differ from country to country, so I came here excited to learn, see, and experience what this organization does to address the issue. New York City Relief (NYCR) says this: The homeless are not a problem to be fixed, but people to be loved. And that’s exactly what they have been doing every week, year after year, for the last twenty-five years.
So, anyway, back to Wednesday. The volunteers gathered together in the kitchen at seven thirty, ready to make soup and prepare the busses. Every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday morning, the Relief Bus goes out to several locations throughout New York City to serve steaming vegetable soup and hot chocolate to several hundred people on the street. It’s a team effort to get everything ready and as I shuffled in to start the process, the kitchen bustled with activity. Christmas music blared from the speakers, outreach leaders called out orders (friendly orders, of course) to the volunteers, and everything seemed to run like a well-oiled machine.
Once each bus was ready, bus number one headed to the Bronx and the other to Chelsea Park in downtown Manhattan. I went with a small group of six to Chelsea Park and we set up there in the forty-degree chill. I wore a jacket I bought in Nepal, the quality of which is seriously lacking, and immediately regretted not having something warmer. I was hoping to be in “the pit,” as they call it, on the bus, where they hand out the food and drinks to everyone as they come through the line. Where I found myself, however, was on the sidewalk, which is where several volunteers stand to chat with people, hear their stories, and direct them to any resources they might need.
Love Pays Attention
Let me start by giving you a little glimpse into my personality to give this all some context. I’m an introvert, and while I’m certainly not shy, I’m not a “strike up a random conversation” kind of girl. I’m just as happy sitting in complete silence as I am talking with someone and if I had to choose between chatting with a stranger and, well, not chatting with a stranger, I would choose option two almost every time.
What I have learned over the years is that this personality trait actually serves me quite well, and I’ve learned how to leverage my introvertedness. See, I have this sneaking suspicion that most people around the world are starving to be listened to. Not just heard, but actually listened to. So as one who doesn’t love to talk, but does love to love people, I’ve practiced simply listening.
I have always resonated with this idea that love pays attention. It’s not enough to hear a person’s words. If you’re talking to me, I’m going to take a shot in the dark and guess that you don’t want me to just hear you, but you want me to understand and engage with what you are saying. I have worked with people long enough to know that even the richest among us often lack a person in their lives who truly cares enough to actually pay attention to them.
So as I stood out there on the chilly streets of lower Manhattan, I mulled over that phrase: love pays attention. Yes, it is out of my comfort zone to talk to strangers. But what fun is life if you’re always lounging in your comfort zone? And since later on in the next few blogs I’m going to encourage you to come volunteer with NYCR you might, as you’re reading this, be thinking, There’s no way I’d go out there to talk to homeless strangers on the street. So let me encourage you; not so long ago, I was right there with you.
Don’t be quick to let that phrase go. Love pays attention. If you’re wondering who could use that kind of love the most, I want to make the case that people living on the streets are truly desperate for it.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am quick to judge people. I’d like to think that’s not true, but we all make snap judgments, right? What we don’t take into consideration is that everyone has a story.
So let me tell you a story about a guy I met out on the street. His name is Mark. Mark is from Guyana, a small country just east of Venezuela in South America. He has been in the United States for over a decade and at one time had a job working in a warehouse, loading shipments for Toys “R” Us. As we spoke, he continued to take swigs from his Crystal Geyser water bottle, half full of a pallid, murky liquid that I’m guessing wasn’t water.
Some time ago, the management at his Toys “R” Us store changed hands and he found himself out of a job, due to some unclear disagreement he had with the guy in charge. As the economy has suffered, especially for low-income workers, Mark can’t find steady work. He has few marketable skills, a criminal record, and is clearly an alcoholic. To add insult to injury, as is common for many people living on the streets, his wallet was stolen and he has no official identification.
I spent no less than forty minutes chatting with Mark about his life, his philosophies, his past, and his hopes for the future. He’s a black man living in New York City, and no matter where you stand on the race issues we’ve been experiencing as of late, there’s no denying a palpable tension between the people (especially the homeless) and the police.
The opportunities I have had in life are very different than the ones Mark has experienced. I’m not saying he hasn’t made some mistakes along the way that have hurt his chances of succeeding. I honestly don’t know – I don’t know his whole life story. I know I’ve certainly made some poor choices in my life that could have potentially been life altering, career ending, or worse. It’s probably a small (or not so small) miracle that I’m alive to write these words to you tonight. And a lot of my opportunities were simply handed to me; I did nothing to deserve them.
I don’t have the ability to change Mark’s circumstances. He has to make some serious changes of his own accord to get himself out of his situation. There are resources available to him, if he chooses to pursue them, and NYCR is only one of many organizations on the ground here to help. What I can do, however, is listen to his story, help him understand that he is valuable, express to him that his life is worth something, and look him in the eyes and treat him as an equal.
So when I say, Love pays attention, I think about Mark. I think about Alejandro. I think about Kenneth. I think about Alice. I think about Angel. These are all people I have met on the street this week, talked with, shared a cup of soup with, laughed with, and listened to. And this is exactly what the Relief Bus staff is doing all around New York City, every week, simply loving people and listening to them, right there, as they are.
These Things We Do That Others May Live
I want to leave you with a brief snapshot of how this week has already changed my perspective on people. Now, remember, this is coming from the girl who tries to avoid talking with strangers. I was catching the Blue Line subway up to 77th and Lexington on Sunday morning. I trotted down the steps from Penn Station and casually pulled my phone out of my pocket, glancing at the map to make sure I was in the right place. A homeless man, about sixty years old, was standing near the tracks, speaking loudly against NYC police to anyone within earshot.
Normally, I would have moved away or avoided eye contact. But I stayed put, thinking that coming to New York to work with a homeless ministry and then avoiding the homeless would be hypocritical. He turned to me and asked me where I was going. I smiled and told him I was headed up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He said, “Oh! That’s easy. You take the E train to Lexington Avenue and then switch to the 6 train to 77th.”
That was all it took to strike up a conversation with Carl. I knew the train would be coming soon, so I wasn’t worried about getting locked into an awkward or lengthy political conversation. I told him about my friends at New York City Relief and he said he had heard of them but had never visited the bus. I explained where and when he could find us down in Chelsea Park and then he flashed me a toothy grin, reached into the pocket of his oversized army jacket, and said, “Here, I want you to have this.” He pulled out a small metal pendant and handed it to me. I can’t take anything from a homeless person, I thought. He seemed to understand my hesitation and said, “Seriously, I want you to have it.”
At that moment, the train rumbled in, and I shook Carl’s hand and thanked him for his gift. I waved goodbye and hopped on the E train. It was an encounter I won’t soon forget, simple as it may have been.
The motto of New York City Relief is this: These things we do that others may live. It’s their battle cry every day when they go out into the streets. So what does that mean? For me here, at this time, in this place, it means that I listen so that others may experience love. So my question for you is this: What might you do, today, so that others may live?
Until next time,
About the Author: Sarah is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She has her undergraduate degree in Business Communication from Azusa Pacific University in Southern California and is currently working on her Masters degree in Organizational Leadership. Sarah recently finished a two and a half year assignment working for an anti-trafficking NGO in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she had the opportunity to mentor and lead college students in ministry abroad. She is mildly obsessed with Jeopardy, coffee, running, and the Atlanta Falcons.