The Act of Not Acting

Posted on February 7, 2010 by Ryan P. Cumming

On Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago, a man lingered on a street corner, examining a trash bin for items worthy of rescue.  He wore long sleeves and slacks—items that had seen their better days—even though the June air approached 75 degrees.  While pondering whether or not to approach him, give him a few bucks, or just walk by, I studied his face.  An unexpected peace emanated from his eyes.  Not a frantic or dejected survival instinct—no, that was not what was at work.  Clearly something unusual guided this man’s approach to the work of the moment.

I forgot about this man within a few minutes, days (for sure), and after a week I doubt I thought about that encounter.  A few weeks later, I walked the streets of St. Louis during the ELCA Youth Gathering.  One night, I saw the same man doing the same thing on a street corner not unlike the one where I’d met him in Chicago.  I confronted him, unable to determine how this was possible.  Was he the most ambitious traveling homeless man in the country?  Did he migrate from big city to big city when he’d seen all he cared to see?

“I saw you in Chicago a few weeks ago,” I said.

“No, sir.  You must be mistaken,” he replied.

“No, I’m sure I’m not,” I said.  There was no mistake.  “It was definitely you.  Downtown Chicago.”

The man studied my face, a slight grin on his face though his eyes conveyed utter surprise.  That evening, he was wearing a cap.  He removed it and motioned down his body as if to say ‘have a good look.’  “I don’t know what to tell you,” he said, smiling.  “Have a good night.”

I didn’t offer to help the man that night, just as I hadn’t a few weeks before.  It wasn’t my place.  Something much bigger was at work, something I only understood weeks or even months later.

I don’t recall when I have felt a stronger presence of God on earth, embodied in a man who carried his cross with no shame, sleeping wherever he probably could, living by the grace of God.  But that’s just the thing.  One can believe it was an ordinary man, and that built on my certainty that the two were not look-alikes, this homeless man happened to garner a way to St. Louis from Chicago.  Not only that, but I happened to encounter him of all people in both cities, weeks apart.

When we’re called to act, we must act.  But why is it that those in a position to offer help assume that is what is needed?  I realized only later that the reason I didn’t offer to help the man was that he was not the one who needed something.

I was.

-Aaron Cooper is Writer-Editor for ELCA World Hunger

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