Light bulbs dangled precariously over the multitude of food stalls crowding the plaza. Each illuminated glossy candies, perfectly iced cakes, heaps of noodles flecked with vegetables, shish kabobs dripping with spicy sauce, piles of fried chicken, pork and seafood, and tubs of curry. My every sense was assaulted, nose filled with a thrilling array of scents, tongue ablaze with spice and flavor. My feet throbbed from walking from stall to stall to stall and my stomach ached with fullness.
It’s funny how in the places of opulence I forget that there is want. When my belly is filled with good things, I don’t think of those that are starving just down the street. When I’m comfortably tucked away in my bed, under my blankets, the family around the corner living under a tarp exposed to the elements is far from my mind.
In that food choked plaza, I walked quickly (maybe waddled would be a better word) to rejoin my family after a foray to the spicy veggie shish kabob stall with a friend. As I passed through a narrow, darker area of the plaza, a man much shorter than me caught my eye and smiled at me. It was one of the most beautiful smiles I’ve ever seen. My steps slowed as I took in the radiance and sweetness of his expression and I instinctively returned the smile. Belatedly, I realized that he was standing not on his feet but on the stubs of his legs missing from just below his hips, a scuffed cup in his hands, a hopeful sparkle in his brown eyes. My smile didn’t fade, but it felt cheap and fake as I walked briskly past.
I charged onward, pushing down the familiar conflicted feelings, wondering if I should have paused, given him something, said something. It was then I noticed my friend was no longer walking behind me. I turned around and saw her bending to greet the man, speaking a few gentle words to him and dropping a few coins into his cup. Shame washed over me, and I turned and rushed onward, hiding my burning face from my compassionate friend. This feeling was so familiar, the confusion, the doubt, and the shame.
I remembered the grubby face of a child peering in at me through the taxi window in Delhi while we waited at a stoplight. I thought of the exhausted mother holding her eerily silent child outside a temple, bending to touch my feet and beseeching me with her eyes saying, “Food, food, food,” over and over again. I recalled a flock of Indian children, crowding around us in the bazaar pawing at our clothes and begging for something. An old man sitting by the Walmart exit, holding a cardboard sign asking for a little money or some work. All faces of people I didn’t help. All people that I turned away, and sometimes even physically pushed away from me.
I reviewed all my excuses, all my reasons for turning away: they probably wouldn’t use the money well, and even if they did it wouldn’t help them in the long run. Maybe they’ve made terrible decisions in their lives, and they don’t deserve help (yes, I actually thought that). But even if they did “deserve it,” I thought, they may not even get to keep the money I give them. I shuddered as I remembered hearing about the begging syndicates (cue Slumdog Millionaire music), and how I’d been told by countless people not to give to beggars at all. I thought of the books I’d read and the courses I’d taken that addressed poverty, outlining its causes and how to help… the books I’d read that had also advised not to give money to beggars. But none of the excuses and none of the advice or wisdom helped me in that moment of suspended time as my eyes locked with those of the smiling man in Meechok Plaza.
There’s one thing I remembered in that moment, Jesus’ words that have been haunting me ever since.
I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
So, wait…that’s Jesus I ignored. Jesus, to whom I refused the few coins I could easily spare. That was Jesus I walked away from. Jesus that I physically pushed away from me.
Which leads me to the burning question: what can I do to help those in need? I can’t help every child knocking at the taxi window, every widow begging outside the temple, every crippled person I pass while shopping. But what can I do? What does God expect of me?
Sometimes I help, sometimes I give. But I’m ashamed at how little I do when I do decide to assist in some way. The rest of our meal to the boy pressing his nose against the restaurant window, a bed for the family sleeping on the dirt under a tarp, hiring an auto rickshaw to get a sick man to the hospital. But it never seems like enough, it never seems like it will effect any lasting change in their lives. How could my little act of charity make their very difficult lives any better in the long run?
And then I remember the story of the Good Samaritan. A man who took care of the problem in front of him. He didn’t go looking for it, but along his way, he encountered someone who was hurting and considered it his duty to help. He was prepared, and he made time. He didn’t think it was someone else’s job, but he also didn’t think he had to help fix everything that was wrong in that person’s life. He helped with that immediate need. He sacrificed his time, energy, money and comfort. He did what he could.
That’s what I need to remember that when the crushing magnitude of poverty presses down on my spirit and squeezes out my hope, when my heart grows calloused to all the pain I constantly see, and when I feel so helpless to affect any change in the world around me.
Maybe I can make a difference for one.
Maybe I can bring a little light, a little hope, a little love into someone’s life. If only for a moment. Maybe that’s all I’m supposed to do, especially when it’s all I can do.
Maybe God will use one act of kindness, one gesture of love, one effort to help to change a life, or at least to plant or water some seeds of hope.
Maybe it won’t be convenient, comfortable or even safe. Maybe it will take sacrifice, not just of my money but of my time, energy, relationships, and love.
I don’t know the answer. I can only hope and pray that as I grow closer to God’s heart he will give me his eyes to see every person I come across the way that He does. All I can pray is for a deep sensitivity to his Holy Spirit, and for wisdom and discernment to deal with those I encounter on the road from Jerusalem to Jerico.
And I can pray as the Brandon Heath song goes:
Give me Your eyes for just one second
Give me Your eyes so I can see
Everything that I keep missing
Give me Your love for humanity
Give me Your arms for the broken-hearted
The ones that are far beyond my reach
Give me Your heart for the ones forgotten
Give me Your eyes so I can see