I serve alongside a mobile outreach in New York City that does, in my opinion, the best job out there when it comes to treating people with dignity and seeing them as individuals who matter. The thing is, our guests see this also, and it’s the reason many of them come to us.
At the Relief Bus, we do our best to meet people’s immediate needs of hunger, hygiene kits and new socks (etc), yet so many of our guests come to us for another reason; connection. We have a number of regulars (and others) who come not for the soup, not for socks, not for help from our staff with connection to resources for housing or medical appointments or rehab, but for the company. We value sitting and eating soup with our guests as much as ladling it out to them, and it’s one of a million things I love about this organization. We stand in line with them to chat, we serve them when possible by bringing them another serving of soup or drink, or by taking their trash for them, like a restaurant. People tell me regularly that they came that day because “it’s so nice just to have someone to talk to.” To feel seen, and not invisible. Not forgotten, or overlooked.
One of our guests, Angel, comes faithfully to our Harlem site every Friday and Saturday (we are at certain sites certain days, and we are in Harlem every Friday and Saturday). Angel has housing and food, and yet he comes on the bus all the way from another borough because “This is my family.” He will tell you, sometimes more than once, that he has a routine, and that part of that routine is that every Friday and Saturday, he comes to the Relief Bus because “I come to be with my family. This is my family, and I’m gonna be with the Relief Bus for the rest of my life.” Family, Angel so beautifully demonstrates, is not so much about genes or legal forms, but about genuine connection. Trust. Unconditional love.
Angel brings so much sunshine with him and he doesn’t even know it, I don’t think. He is so happy to meet new volunteers each week, and loves getting selfies with them. LOL – he will ALWAYS say, when he sees the picture afterwards, “It looks good! That came out good!” which, I admit, is a bit of a foreign concept to me. He doesn’t look at or critique his appearance, he just sees himself and his (often new) friends. Angel delights in connection.
Angel grew up in difficult circumstances, like the majority of our guests, and at one point – I think he was around ?age 9? – he suffered a traumatic brain injury at the hands of another. This left him vulnerable to this day, but/and it also left him in somewhat of a really precious, child-like state. His mom died a year after he started visiting the Relief Bus (she was his caretaker), and he feels like it’s the best decision he ever made to “get in with the Relief Bus.” When his mom died, and his sister could no longer care for him, his feeling that we are his family kicked into high gear. He does still have some family in town and he does see them – it’s not that he has no one at all. But for reasons we may never fully understand, we are also his family, and he feels our commitment to being there for him as much as we feel his commitment to us. And my point in this post is not to make a commercial for the bus (although I’ll be more than happy to!), but rather to put it out there that the time you take to look someone in the eye and know them by name has an impact you probably underestimate. Angel rarely even eats the soup when he’s with us, and he doesn’t take socks – he literally comes to just be with us. And he’s not the only one.
You go into these situations to serve others, often times not sure you have anything personally to offer besides a warm body to ladle soup or pour drinks or hand out socks, etc., forgetting the powerful thing that takes place when you look someone in the eye and give them your name. I think the world in general has lost touch with eye contact since the introduction of smartphones, but I think we also – most of us – don’t understand what it’s like to have people act like they don’t see you, thus making someone’s deliberate choice to see you, and to show you that they see you, a powerful interaction. It’s a regular occurrence on a bus day to see tears of gratitude from someone simply because they feel cared about. And ya know what? It changes me, too. They are my family, too. Their connection helps me heal, too.
At the end of the day, most of us want the same things. We want to be loved, we want to be seen, and heard, and to feel safe. Our friends on the street are no different, but they are treated as less than human by so many. They’re harshly judged, extremely misunderstood, consistently mistreated, and forced to live in a state of hyper vigilance. Trust, especially the kind that drives them to return week after week, month after month, year after year for some, is a highly precious commodity and one we don’t take lightly. And perhaps the most humbling part of all of it is that, not only are we not really solving any of their complex problems for them, but most of us who volunteer/are staff would say that we ourselves are just hot messes who’re in process, each with our own set of shortcomings and needs/issues. And yet, we show up just as we are to love them just as they are, and something sacred happens. Somehow, God can still use me and my laundry list of faults to help someone else. And really, they don’t come asking for much if anything. They come because the little bit of connection they feel from that once or twice a week visit somehow helps them get through another day and week.
We all need connection, desperately. And we all have the power to offer it to others. And all it really takes is looking at a person, seeing them, and letting them know that you see them. Treating them like you see them. Who doesn’t want that, really?
My challenge to all of us today is to put down the phone, tablet, book, laptop – whatever it is that keeps you from paying attention to those around you, whether out in public or in your living room – and connect with someone. Connect with a stranger in line at the store, or out at the gas pump, on the subway, in the hallway in-between classes, in the break room at work. The depression/suicide rate has climbed over the years, and I think a huge piece of it is our loss of genuine connection. You never know who it is in your office, or class, or place of worship, or in line with you at Starbucks that is suffering terribly on the inside and in need of the kindness of a stranger. Sometimes that’s even more powerful than the kindness of those you know. Just a few weeks ago, on a rough day, a woman at the convenience store where I was getting coffee looked right at me and then tilted her head and asked, “Are you ok?” Her asking has stayed with me these weeks – just her asking. We didn’t talk, I didn’t need something from her or solved by her, but apparently I needed the unexpected gesture of kindness and compassion; evidently, I needed to know I was seen.
See your people today. Really see them. And then, most importantly, let them know. We all need to know and be reminded regularly that we matter, and that is the power of connection. Connection says You matter.