If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear. – 1 John 3:17 (The Message)
This past week, I was able to head to Wrigleyville, a Chicago neighborhood, to witness the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup victory celebration. Throughout the night I observed a great number of unsettling scenes unfolding. One in particular that deserves reflection occurred on the way home via public transit. I was transferring trains and walked through a tunnel among the sea of boisterous fans. Up ahead, someone caught my eye. There was a man sitting on the side of the tunnel. As I moved closer, I noticed he had signs made of cardboard. The two I remember said: “$1.00 for my daughter to eat,” and “$1.00 for the Blackhawks.” The man was sitting there, holding a cup and staring at the wall across from him. My attention was quickly drawn away from him by the several fans shouting, “GO HAWKS!” I saw that every one of these people were walking straight by this man without sparing a dollar or even acknowledging that he was there. In particular what resonated with me about witnessing this occurrence is that most of us had probably spent dozens of dollars already that night on food, drinks and victory merchandise. Admittedly, I, too, fell victim to the pressure of my surroundings and continued to walk by this man just like everyone else. I spent the rest of my train ride home attempting to process what I saw and how I am called to respond as a Christian.
As I reflect on this, what first comes to mind is a late-night discussion I had while studying abroad in India last fall. We were discussing the practice of untouchability, an attitude based on the belief that certain people are “impure” that translates into a variety of behaviors, norms and physical acts. People in the Dalit community, with whom I spent my time, are most often considered “untouchable.”
During that discussion someone posed the question, “Does untouchability happen in the United States?” After a brief moment, we listed several examples, such as avoiding the “bad part” of town and sidestepping people who appear to be homeless.
What I witnessed that night – and, frankly, more often than not when I see people facing hunger on the street – looks a lot like untouchability. There is a sense that the person on the side of the road is unclean, unsafe or unworthy of our attention.
The Bible proclaims that we are ALL created in God’s own image. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “So in Christ, we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” As Christ commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As Martin Luther wrote in “Freedom of a Christian,” “Therefore, we should be guided in all our works by this one thought alone – that we may serve and benefit others in everything that is done, having nothing before our eyes except the need and advantage of the neighbor.” And we as Lutherans speak of the model of accompaniment, or walking in solidarity with and among our brothers and sisters of all walks of life. How do we practice this outside of our church walls or away from planned mission trips or service events? What does it mean for us to recognize each person – every person – as the very image of God?
Reflecting on that experience on my way home, I wish I wouldn’t have followed the crowd. This wasn’t a matter of not giving a dollar, but rather the inner feeling that I, too, had ignored the humanity of the man with the signs. What would it look like for us to go from ignoring the person, to offhand giving and finally, beyond this, to really seeing the image of God in our brothers and sisters? How does our choice to give or not to give reflect our belief that God has created us in God’s image and marked us as God’s own? Maybe that means giving a dollar, or maybe it means asking a person his name or listening to her story. Maybe it means recognizing even those whom society deems “untouchable” as people worth knowing, worth listening to and worth seeing.
Anna Smith is an ELCA World Hunger intern working with Hunger Education this summer. She is currently a student at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn.