I've written a lot about what it means to be human. It's one of my favorite subjects, because it's endlessly fascinating; the idea that we, the human race, so varied and multifaceted in our makeup, still share so much in common - well, it's a writer's dream. Usually, my observations come from reading things people write - magazine articles, books, blogs, comments on blogs - but this past Saturday, I took a group of people into Atlanta to work with Seven Bridges to Recovery, a Christian group that works with the homeless.
We went all over the city, into places that the average person would never dare go, not for any reason. Under bridges. Into abandoned apartment complexes. Down streets with nothing but abandoned houses. Everywhere we went, the result was the same: people, beaten down by life, coming out of the woodwork for a simple grocery sack and a hug.
The cynic might read this and say, "Well, they are where they are because of the choices they've made."
The cynic is right. Several of the people we met on Saturday have made excruciatingly bad choices. In some instances, appallingly bad choices. Some even confessed to their dysfunctional lives with candor.
Said one man, formerly a professional boxer, "This isn't what I wanted for my life. But I didn't choose very well. It's all on me."
But the cynic also needs to stand, shoulder to shoulder, with them and know that not everyone gets the same kind of choices. The cynic needs to hug someone who has HIV, and hear that person say, "You're the first person without gloves on to touch me in three years." The cynic needs to look into the eyes of a young woman who, along with her 18 month old daughter, takes a meager sack of food with great shame, not because she's made bad choices but because she doesn't feel like she's worthy of making good ones. The cynic needs to see a book, well-worn and marked with notes, lying beside a flimsy cardboard bed, held open by a pair of discarded women's reading glasses, reminding anyone with eyes enough to see that even the most destitute still have minds and souls that need nourishment.
The cynic, as is often the case, needs to get out more.
I stood underneath bridges and smelled the overwhelming stench of human desperation. I watched as men, drunk by midday, sheepishly took a bag with a juice bottle, bag of Funyuns, and a tiny sandwich as if it were a five-star meal. I prayed over a woman named Missy who was so high on crack that she couldn't speak a coherent sentence; whose body was so ravaged by her addictions that she only had half her top teeth and half her bottom teeth, neither on the same side. Her face was contorted hideously just to line up one top and one bottom tooth in order to take a bite.
What we did was stare into the face of a problem that we can't possibly begin to fix. Some people can't be saved - I know that. But some people can be. And if handing out sack lunches, hugs, and a reminder that the homeless are human, too, might bring one person off the streets, then it's well worth it.
It was for our guide on Saturday, a young man named Jay who'd previously been homeless for over a decade. He was once an addict too. He's been clean, sober, and off the streets for almost six months, thanks to Seven Bridges. He told the group on Saturday, "Today is my 170th day off them streets, tomorrow is 180, and that's huge."
He also told us, "Them people, they need love too, y'all. A little love can do a lot, if you'll show it."
He was right - a little love goes a long way.
We'll go back in October, and on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, re-issuing humanity one sack lunch and hug at a time. We meet on the last Saturday of the month at 10:30 at my church, if you'd be interested in going.
It's amazing, but true: in making other people feel human, you feel human, too.