Note: From Wednesday, Feb. 25, through Sunday, April 12, I'll be blogging through The Emptiness of Our Hands: A Lent Lived on the Streets, which I co-authored with James Murray. This is in observance of the ten-year anniversary of the 47 days James and I lived voluntarily on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, the nation's 15th-largest city. More so, it's in recognition that nearly four million people experience homelessness every year in this country.
To read the brief portion of the book's text on which I'll be reflecting today, just click on its thumbnail. You can then read the text and, if you'd like, print it out using your browser's "Print" command.
Whenever I'd read a newspaper while living on the streets, I was drawn to stories and photographs about refugees from the war in Yugoslavia, which appeared fairly often. The streets provided a unique vantage point from which to imagine, and more easily understand, the refugees' homelessness, hunger, helplessness, fear; in a word, their suffering.
Trudging the railroad tracks near camp, as I did for some distance every day, I often thought of the refugees who at that very moment might have been doing the same, by the thousands; a long, long human line, following the tracks through the cold of the mountains, mile after mile after mile, not knowing whether they were actually heading toward safety. I could feel the tracks wearing down their slow, slow feet. I could feel their bundles and bags growing heavier by the step. I wondered what they'd chosen to take with them on their long march into the unknown (if in fact they'd had time to choose), and how many of those things they'd end up abandoning along the way out of sheer exhaustion, or out of compassion, letting go of possessions to carry a child.
What would you choose to take with you if you had to leave behind the life you'd always lived, and all you could take with you is what you could carry?
Perhaps what is truly yours, to keep and to give, can't be carried at all....
In today's portion of text, I find myself staring at a teenage girl from Kosovo as she wipes away the tears of her much younger sister, the two of them finally safe (I hope) but all alone in a Macedonian refugee camp. I look closely at this teenager's face, and I know nothing: not her name, or whose eyes she has, or the lullabies she heard as a baby, her favorite color, the childhood toy she'd kept hidden away while pretending to be all grown up, what she wants to be someday, or whether she'll always be mother to this crying little girl....
I look closely at this teenager's face, and I see a story not known. And in her story not known, I see the stories of homeless people, not known. Stories that make them more than statistics. Stories that make them human.
At different times over these past years, I've searched the Internet in vain for the photograph of that teenager and her baby sister. Let me set before you, instead, this nameless, story-less child, who for all we know might have been that teenager's relative, or friend, or neighbor. She, too, took refuge in a Macedonian camp in April, 1999. Look at her. Imagine her life. Wonder about her. Ask questions of her. Hear the stark silence in response, and grieve.
The newspaper's accounts of the war in Yugoslavia and its great throngs of refugees broadened my perspective while I was on the streets. They reminded me that however much I was suffering, my suffering was a small thing, and not only because my own choices had helped create it. No, my suffering was a small thing because all of humanity suffers. Every single person on the planet. Our suffering doesn't make us special. It makes us the same.
It's my place in the world, as I understand it, to do what I can to help alleviate suffering. Self-pity accomplishes nothing, I reminded myself as I stared into the faces of those refugee children, as I looked into the eyes of my homeless friends. Neither does sadness. Feel the sadness, then give it up. Give it up, and get going. There's work—much work—to be done.
Deep peace, until next time—
Photo credits (in order of appearance): United Nations, Roger LeMoyne/Liaison Agency.