Walk on by...

A couple of months ago, my friend Abe introduced me to a quote by the Buddha: However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do if you do not act upon them? This is one of those quotes that, for someone like me who does his best to be intentional about everything, shakes your world to its core. When you sit and think about it, and I mean really think about it, you cannot help but be changed by the meaning of these simple words.

I live in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. From Lake Michigan to either Ravenswood or Clark, and from Foster to either Montrose or Irving Park, I'm home. In this home, I'm surrounded by nearly 30 different social service agencies, many of which are there to serve homeless individuals as well as those with severe mental illness and/or substance abuse issues. On my walk from home to either the train, Target, or my internship, it's not uncommon to run into any number of these persons, several of whom I know by name.

"Any spare change?"

"Got a dollar?"

"Can you help me buy some soap?"

"Hey mister, you got a second?"

Sometimes the questions are barely audible. Other times they blare as loud as rescue sirens. In either case, I hear them. Even with my headphones in my ears and a Spotify playlist filling my head with music, I always hear the questions, whether it be with my ears or with my eyes. Many of us in Uptown and other neighborhoods in the city riddled with excessive amounts of poverty and homelessness are accustomed to the questions. But from my vantage point, most of us have become immune to them. We see the woman sitting in the alcove in a coat that's probably not keeping her warm enough. We see the lady with mere scraps of leather and rubber for shoes. We change seats on the train or bus because the stench coming from the man across the aisle.

We walk on by.

We ignore.

We zone out.

And then a passage from Matthew comes into my head, and I'm brought back to reality, Matthew 25:34-46 to be exact:

34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

No matter how many holy words I read, no matter how many I speak, what good will they do if I do not act upon them? 

So what do I do about this? How far do I go to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to visit the sick or the imprisoned, to welcome the stranger? How much is enough? The answer: I don't have one. I'm a graduate student living mostly on loans. I rarely keep cash on me because I have a debit and credit card on my person at all times. I'm a schedule oriented person, so if I'm out and about, it's because I'm either going to one place or coming from another, often with very little time to spare because I schedule myself down to the minute at times.

Yet I can't seem to get these words from both the Buddha and Jesus out of my head. Some days I'll have change, and I spare it. Some days I'll offer to put someone on the train or go with them to a local fast food eatery. Lately though, I've realized there's one more step about which I need to be more intentional...

These people are human and deserve to be treated as such...

Take that and chew on it.

I know what it feels like to be ignored, to be dehumanized to an extent. It's not fun, not in the least. And so I'm learning that it's not just about the cash, the food, the water, the clothing. It's about engaging. It's about making someone feel human again. Ask their name. Take more than five minutes to spend with them. Better yet, give them the benefit of the doubt. Many of my friends are hesitant about giving money to the poor and homeless because they suspect said money will be used on drugs or alcohol. Even I'm guilty of this thought, mostly because I've learned some of the stories of these people. One is a crack addict. One is an alcoholic. One uses heroin.

These people are human and deserve to be treated as such...

John Wesley's basic principle on money was this: gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can. It's a hard and fast rule on how we should think about money, and it's not easy when you try to live it out. But if there's one thing it tells us, for the life of anyone who places any value on the ministry and teachings of both Jesus and the Buddha, walking on by is never an option.