Rain droplets on my windshield obscure her face, it’s her platinum blond hair that catches my eye. I have a quick impression of a young woman, possibly a college student? A stylish, chunky knit hat is pulled tight to her brows against the frosty rain. The hat sports a pompom the size of a grapefruit and softly bobs with each advancing step. A vibrant red parka draws my attention and that of the other travelers stopped at the matching red traffic light.Realization opens my eyes as she nears. Peering at her face I’m startled to see that she is not a girl at all. She is haggard, sickly, older than me or is she? It’s hard to tell but it’s apparent some hideous addiction has taken hold of her.
Crack? Meth? Alcohol? It doesn’t matter. She’s begging. My first impressions are replaced with the dull indifference of seeing another one, another beggar, another homeless person on the streets of a city, this time, Pittsburgh, but she could be anywhere, in any city.
Her platinum hair is well groomed but the red coat is stained, grungy and worn. I assume the knit hat was a donated item she picked up from the local homeless shelter. It’s still relatively clean.
She passes the car in front of mine and I feel an uncomfortable awkwardness welling in me. I silently implore the traffic light to switch from red to green. I don’t want to have an encounter with her. I try not to make eye contact. But we do.
Why isn’t the damn light changing?
In the split second that I look in her eyes, an overwhelming compassion seizes my chest. The recognition of another as a human being, as a person just like me tugs at my heart. I see this woman as an infant, as a little girl, a teenager and wonder what happened. What horrors has she seen? What abuser has she been subject to? What choices has she had to make?
I yank open my purse digging for cash. I rarely carry cash. It makes for a convenient excuse when I’m faced with this situation. “Sorry! I don’t have any cash!” is an easy way to dismiss them. Luckily, I find three bills. Just three dollars but the triumph lights my face. I roll down my window, smile and wave my money like a victory flag.
She approaches and her face softens. We look directly at each other. She steps off the curb toward the car and utters, “God bless you, sweetheart.” I can’t speak. I simply nod and raise my window against the rain. The light changes to green.
Why is my heart thumping? I feel embarrassed. My smugness at helping a homeless person is tempered by the shame of not doing enough. Three lousy dollars?
My companion says, “She’ll probably just go buy drugs with it.” I don’t respond. It’s not a new conversation. I’m not in the mood to debate. I don’t have any idea what she’ll do with the money. It’s none of my business. It’s her money now and she can use it to fill whatever need she has.
I am deeply moved by this woman and it scares me. I can’t help her beyond my three dollars, but I now pray for her and others in her situation. Of all the homeless people I have encountered, she has placed an inimitable imagine in my mind.
Seeing people as worthy and valuable in all situations is hard. If someone doesn’t look like us, talk like us, smell great, look stylish it’s easy to dismiss them. God placed me in that situation on that rainy day in Pittsburgh for a reason. I don’t want to pat myself on the back for throwing a homeless person money. I want to learn how to take that opportunity and replicate it each day. Replicate it for the people closest to me – the ones I love with all my heart and are easy to love. The ones that drive me insane for big reasons and insignificant ones. The ones I don’t know. The ones that smell bad or look dirty.
Mother Teresa in her book WhereThere Is Love There Is God explains it this way:
“Love is a one-way street. It always moves away from self in the direction of the other. Love is the ultimate gift of our selves to others. When we stop giving we stop loving when we stop loving we stop growing, and unless we grow we will never attain personal fulfillment; we will never open out to receive the life of God. It is through love we encounter God.”
I don’t know if it was a sense of love, of guilt, of duty that I felt compelled to open my window to the woman in Pittsburgh, but I know that one simple encounter offered the opportunity that changed my perspective.