I was walking with a friend in Sheffield the other day, on the way to dinner. We weren’t in a hurry, the weather was actually pleasant and I happened to have a small mound of loose change in the bottom of my handbag—maybe 70p—so when the young homeless man who often sits under my bus stop asked for money, I stopped. Having lived in New York City for a number of years, I confess that I’ve got my “I don’t have any money to give you” face honed to perfection. I use it more often that I’d like to admit. On this day though, in the pleasant weather, with the coins weighing me down, I handed them over and stayed for a quick chat. It was the typical conversation: “Thanks so much,” “You’re welcome, I’m sorry it’s not much,” “That’s ok, every bit helps. Have a nice day,” “You too,” and we were off again.
My friend and I began talking about the interaction. He wondered whether the man’s cheerful gratitude was really more a form of customer service—an act, designed to keep the people happy—than it was genuine friendliness. I countered that perhaps friendly customer service isn’t necessarily false; perhaps he knows, just as we all do, that kindness and courtesy go a long way. In the end, we left a hanging question: What if it wasn’t just about the money? What if he was just happy to be spoken to, to be looked in the eye, to be treated as if he mattered?
Mother Teresa spent much of her life running a hospice for leprosy sufferers in Calcutta. She observed, “We have drugs for people with diseases like leprosy. But these drugs do not treat the main problem, the disease of being unwanted…Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” That was the poverty she spent her life combatting in the Indian slums.
I’ve just finished reading The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken. He touches briefly on the same theme, but in an extreme context. Somaliland in the early 1990s was, few people would argue, the worst place on earth. Ripken and his small relief organisation were in Mogadishu long before UN peacekeepers arrived, before the international community had grasped the horrors of starvation, brutality, and pervasive death the Somalis called “daily life.” He was there when American troops waded to shore, there when the Black Hawk Down tragedy shocked the world, and there when America left again. And he outstayed the UN too.
Day after day, month after grueling month, he and his colleagues fed and served the starving, homeless, dying people of war-torn Somaliland. He had seen horrors that most of us can’t imagine, and he was pouring out his life trying to save the lives of these men, women and children who had been abandoned by the outside world. He had been in Somaliland for a few years when God convicted him of what he called “the sin of loving arrogance”.
One day as he faced yet another queue of hundreds of hungry people waiting for their rations, he changed his normal line of questioning: “Do you need food? Is your baby sick? Do your children need clothes? Does your family have shelter?” This time, he simply asked, “What do you need most?” One old woman answered his question with nothing less than her life story—a tale of sorrow, fear, injustice, inhumanity and despair. Ripkin writes:
So many people with similar stories desperately needed more than the help that we were prepared to give. What they wanted even more, however, was someone, anyone, even a stranger who was still trying to learn their language, to sit with them for a while…and let them share their stories. I perhaps should have known this, but I was amazed to see the power of human presence…I wasn’t able to listen to every story…but the stories I did hear taught me that there was much more to those suffering Somalis than their overwhelming physical needs. (The Insanity of God, p 86)
I love the gospel story of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years—how she sneaked up to Jesus, fearful of being discovered; how she desperately reached for his cloak and was healed; how over a decade of shame had conditioned her to try to sneak away again, having “stolen” her healing from Jesus. But Jesus wasn’t satisfied with her shame. And he wasn’t satisfied to meet only her physical need. He called her out of the crowd, looked her in the eye and called her “my daughter.” He had healed her body, but perhaps more importantly, in that simple humanising act, he had healed her heart.
Isn’t that what we all need? Someone to look us in the eye and tell us that we matter? That we are wanted?
It’s so easy for us to look at people like Nik Ripken and Mother Teresa—and especially Jesus—and say to ourselves, “I could never do the things they’ve done. They’re spiritual giants! They have so much courage! So much wisdom!” But it seems to me that their courage, wisdom and spiritual giantism didn’t really come in to play here it all. It was their open hands, their listening ears, their time. It was the ability to stop, ask questions and listen.
People all over the world live in varying degrees of material need, but there is something that every one of us needs in equal degree: to know that we are wanted, to know that we are human. It doesn’t take a spiritual giant to look someone in the eye and show them that aspect of Jesus’ love. And how can I hope to get the realities of the full spectrum of His love across to anyone—especially those who don’t know him—without first showing them that they matter, to us and to Him? Isn’t that where He started?
Photo by Remi Walle.