Tuesday, December 9, 2008

NYC: A Prayer for the Homeless

Somewhere in Manhattan, not too far off from Times Square, Erin and I were walking. It was in the afternoon on Friday, and we were indulging in our exploration just a couple of hours or so before heading to the MoMA. We turned a crowded corner and something caught my eye. It looked like a garbage bag tossed against the side of the building, and we stepped to our right to dodge it. I looked a bit closer as a I passed and realized, to my horror, it was a woman in a tattered blanket.

She was partially lying on the sidewalk, and partially leaning against the wall. It was a strange, contorted position and I can't imagine how it was at all comfortable. Her face was distraught. She looked genuinely afraid and almost as if she were crying. In her hands was a paper cup, which she was clutching with effort and yet failing to hold straight up.

I've never seen a homeless person seem so miserable in this country. Perhaps that sounds naive, but generally when I pass such people they in no way resemble what I saw in her. Sometimes they appear half sane. Sometimes they appear drunk. Sometimes they seem carefree and almost blissful, and other times they seem quite unhappy. However, never before had I seen one of them looking utterly miserable, unhappy, and afraid. It wrenched my heart and I stopped in my tracks, feeling completely helpless.

I regret not doing something, though I can't imagine what I could have done. I could have put my arm around her, I could have sat with her. However, nothing I was capable of doing could have sustained her in any way for more than a few minutes. I thought of the Salvation Army bell-ringers standing at practically every corner, putting on a sideshow to collect the change from passers-by. I thought of the almost theatrical members of the homeless coalition that were as frequently distributed. I was angered at these thoughts. No, it wasn't their fault and yes, they probably did serve the homeless. Nonetheless, something seemed unjust, and my conscience demanded a perpetrator. And so out of helplessness, faith and hope, I offer a prayer for the homeless:

God, have mercy on the downtrodden in New York City. Have mercy on the mentally ill and grace on the irresponsible. To the downtrodden: stretch out your hand over them as members of organizations like the Salvation Army, but also, and perhaps more importantly, through the hands and hearts of the city's inhabitants. May it be placed heavily on them that these people are their brothers and their sisters. That taxation or progressive administrative infrastructure do not remove a shred of the responsibility that each of us share in loving and caring for them with our own hands. They are your children as much as we are. They are as undeserving of your compassion as we are. I pray that we know this, and that we reach out to them in love twice as hard because of this knowledge.