While visiting a childhood friend a few weekends ago, I had a very confronting experience with street beggars. Now normally I'm pretty open to giving cash or food if I happen to have it. This time, however, I was out of my element...in New York.
I was trying to look at directions on my phone, which is a clear signal for "tourist." A woman approached me. I can only tell you she was a woman because her voice sounded female. But I can't tell you what she looked like. In fact, I never looked at her. I continued to search on my phone as though she didn't exist. My girlfriend told the woman, "sorry," to explain that we couldn't help. I continued to stare intently at my phone, mostly embarrassed.
Being in a different city, I could probably justify my lack of assistance, right? I could tell you that I didn't understand the rules of how to handle panhandlers. That's how I could justify walking by that same woman AGAIN, hearing her voice call to me and again not look in her direction, pretend she didn't exist...pretend that I didn't hear her.
That episode stuck in my mind as I enjoyed time with my friend. She and I have been friends since middle school. She is the kind of open, intelligent and curious friend that you want in your life forever. But I'm not really sure how we became friends. I always felt a little undeserving since I lived on the south side of our small Minnesota town, a neighborhood known as Shantytown, and she lived in a nicer neighborhood in a custom-built home. I was Catholic. She was Lutheran. She ate stuff like "baba ghanoush" and knew how to pronounce it.
As she and I strolled through The Met and looked at amazing art and artifacts, I listened to her comment about various artists like my own personal tour guide. She has lived in New York for at least 15 years. She has traveled extensively. When we see each other, which is maybe once a year, we can pick up right where we left off. Our shared childhood history and similar interests and even some personality traits make it easy to be around her.
At least, I thought I was comfortable.
Later that weekend, walking toward the subway, I heard another beggar cry out from his spot on a stair landing. This was the third time a human being called out to me. Before I could respond, my friend's husband walked right up to him and said, "How are you doing?" before handing him some cash. The man said, "God bless you."
"He's such a softy," my friend said of her husband in a voice full of affection.
In that moment, I realized my error.
Yes, I was in a different city, but I was mostly worried about myself. I was nervous about "blending in." I was nervous about what my friend would think if I started mingling with beggars on the street. I was nervous about wearing the right clothes and saying the right things and making sure I was good enough to be loved. All of that mental noise made me too busy to notice what I was really supposed to do...to love.
A beggar called out to me three times. I turned away because I was afraid to see my own poverty in her eyes. She deserved more than ignorance. She was my teacher. I was the beggar in nice clothing.
For all the education and culture and nice clothing we may use to hide, God finds our nature and shows it to us in quiet teaching. When He calls us, will we hear or pretend not to?