The neighborhood I work in has a bustling downtown. Third Street features restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques that invite people to browse and visit. Walking a few blocks from my office to Third Street is rarely a solitary venture. Often I cross paths with people I know, sometimes we offer a quick wave, often we stop and talk. One of the things I enjoy most about my neighborhood is the people I’ve come to know as friends.
Within the downtown are those who are less visible. They are our neighbors who are homeless. It is not uncommon for people to walk past the homeless as if they weren’t there. Perhaps we walk past because we think that their story is so different than our own? Perhaps we walk past because they remind us of our own vulnerability?
The church I serve has long been seen as a hospitable place for our neighbors on the streets. In the morning we put on coffee and invite folk to use our rest room, to rest in a comfortable chair and use the phone. Those of us on staff have come to know many of our homeless neighbors by name.
In recent months, several members of the church have opened up a hospitality room where neighbors can stop by for breakfast and receive a warm welcome. For everyone involved it has been transformative. A few days ago I stopped by and saw a retired teacher listening intently to a man who lives on the streets. She was asking him about his life. I wondered how long it had been since this man, whom people often walk past, had someone really listen to him.
What has occurred over these months is a deepening sense of community between those of us who live in secure, warm houses and those of us who struggle to find a place to lay our head each night. No longer do we walk past one another. Now we know each other’s name, each other’s story. We’ve come to realize that our stories are not all that different. Our understanding of whom we call ‘neighbor’ has expanded.
Recognizing one another as a neighbor has all sorts of implications. Now that we know each other and care about each other, we begin to see the complex issues that bring someone to the streets. We begin to ask questions about what social services are necessary for a healthy community to provide, so that all our neighbors are treated with dignity.
The issues are complex, the needs are great and the answers don’t come easily. The first step however is in knowing each other’s name and listening to each other’s story. The good news, is that we are no longer invisible to each other.