It was on this journey, inundated with foreign sights, sounds and smells that I met them. Our encounter was so brief as to scarcely be worthy of mention except for the questions they raised in the mind of a hopeful little girl.
A man and a woman. Huddled under how many layers? Three? Four? Seven? Each held a book in hand, escaping from the harsh reality of an impending Northeast winter, aloof to the brilliant sights and intrusive sounds that overwhelmed my senses all day. "My wife and I are HIV+," read the impeccable handwriting, black permanent marker on a cardboard canvas. "Please help." They never saw me staring. My unhesitating legs must have blended in with the ever-preoccupied crowd. But for me, all else faded into the background as we rushed past them and across the street.
"Mom." I tugged at my mother's sleeve as soon as the image of the woman's long brunette locks were out of view. "Mom. Why are they homeless if they can read?" My innocent question incited a response that shattered any previous notion my developing mind had concocted about the poor. Educated? Skilled? And still homeless?
There wasn't much time to think. We were in a hurry to catch the matinee show of the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City. The Rockettes, with their perfect height, impeccable kicks and shimmery leotards screamed for my attention, but all I could see was that man and that woman, cold, sick, ignored.
And we ignored them like everyone else.
I had never been warned that giving money on the street was unwise. I didn't know how often people abused the system. I had no learned excuses to relieve my conscience so I might enjoy the dazzling scene in front of me. And so I didn't. Until intermission when my mother assured me we would make a donation to a New York City homeless shelter when we returned home. With that promise, I was able to marvel at the second act, but a bitter aftertaste lingered.
How many homeless individuals have a walked by since then? As I enjoyed a day in the city, unwilling to be inconvenienced? While being consumed and distracted by the little universe whose center runs straight though me?
In the distant recesses of my mind there is a hint of a whisper, "What you do for the least of these...", but it is as easy to dismiss as an echo. The speaker of those words doesn't understand the modern system, a system that makes people untrustworthy, childish, manipulative. So I walk on by, hundreds, thousands of times declaring with my steps that I think those words irrelevant. And each step dulls the painful sting of compassion.
"Don't let yourselves be robbed of hope."
Pope Francis' words were directed to young prisoners, sure to be labeled, stereotyped and ignored by most. At first hearing of this exhortation, I received those words as if directed to me as well. For I, too, thirst for a hope that will not disappoint, a melting of my aging and jaded heart.
But, then, in horror, I see that I am the thief. The one who ignores. The one who labels. The one who daily fails to see the image of God in the eyes of the cold, the dirty, the unlovable.