A few weeks ago I was in Atlanta with some amazing students on a mission trip. Among the things that we did was go into Centennial Park and spend some time with people we met there. I ended up in this incredible conversation with two homeless men (others joined and left over time), sitting on a bench near the fountain. As I was sitting and talking with them, I noticed a family about 20 yards away who were holding a piece of paper and kept looking over at us. They never made eye contact, but kept looking our way for about ten or fifteen minutes. Eventually, they wandered over looking at the engraved bricks on the ground (if you haven't been there, it is one of those places where, if you made a contribution they would engrave your name on a brick). The brick that they were looking for was about three feet in front of us. Still, though standing right there, they did not acknowledge us in any way and set about taking photos of the brick.
After a few minutes, they put a little boy (probably about a year old) on the ground to get a picture with him and the brick. When the child would not look up for the camera, one of the men that I was talking to tried to get his attention and get him to look in the right direction for the picture. It was only then that the group gave us the slightest acknowledgment - and that was only something along the lines of "Thanks." After probably a total of five minutes, they wandered away and we were back to talking.
Later that day - and a number of times since then - I looked back on that experience. While they waited to approach, they clearly were hoping that the homeless looking group on the bench would just go away. They tried to look right through us, to make us go away - to make us invisible. In short, they did just what I do in my every day life. When I walk down the streets and see a homeless person a half a block away, I know to make sure not to make eye contact, to try to avoid them, and certainly not to talk with them. Yet I had an truly amazing conversation with these men about faith, raising kids, life on the streets, the justice system, etc. I learned from them, we ended our talk with hugs and I look forward to trying to find them the next time that I am in Atlanta (I'm praying for you Rick and Jerry).
So much has happened to these folks on the streets that has resulted in them being there. Then, we have been trained to strip that last bit of humanity from them by acting as if they do not exist. Because that family thought that I was part of that group, my eyes were opened that day, the invisibility cloaks were stripped away.
Of course, sadly, you return to your normal life and life starts to return to normal. I find myself letting those cloaks slip back on unless I remind myself of what it was like and the experience that I had. So, this is my reminder for today. I hope that anyone that reads this will at least consider whether they have been trained the same way and try to do something about it. I'm not suggesting, of course, that you put yourself in a dangerous situation or anything like that, but try to open your eyes and remind yourself "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" and the corollary "whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." Matthew 25:40 and Matthew 25:45