I was recently in Columbia, spending time visiting loved ones and seeing the sights. When travelling somewhere for the first time, especially for someone who doesn’t have the opportunity to travel much, figuring out how much cash to bring and how much to convert to local currency can be a guessing game that doesn’t go very well.
So after a couple of days bumming around I was out of pesos. Which, added to the fact that my credit card wasn’t working, left me in a rather foul mood. It wasn’t because of a compulsion to shop and consume, but because I felt a bit of a drag on those in my company because I didn’t feel like I was contributing my part. Worse than that, I wasn’t able to give a pittance to help the local economy. In Columbia there are a lot of street performers and vendors who aren’t shy about looking to do business. On two separate occasions I had street rappers decide to do their rap in front of me. It would have been convenient to throw them a few thousand pesos and have them move on to the next sap. More importantly, it would have made me feel good to support those vendors who are out there all day hustling to earn an existence. Buying an arepa from a local for the price of a U.S. dollar would have been a mutually beneficial exchange. But there was an even greater reason I was feeling bad about not having cash on hand.
Coming from a small city in the United States, I am not used to witnessing homelessness and poverty so close up. There was a fair amount of that on display in the areas of Columbia I visited. And while I’m past the age of believing I am morally obliged to fix every bit of suffering, I am also past the age where I'm comfortable turning away and pretending I don’t see it. But having no cash on hand, I had no other choice. It made me feel bad.
The first time you turn away from the misfortune of others is hard, but it becomes increasingly easier thereafter. It is a habit that forms quickly, and pretty soon you are able to walk past those people in need as if they don’t really exist.
There are plenty of good explanations and rationalizations for doing so. “They’re just playing upon your sympathies.” “They’re not really that bad off, they’ve just found an easy way to make a buck.” “If you give to one, the others will take you for an easy mark.” “You’re not really helping them, you’re just contributing to their problems.” And there are plenty of people who are eager to share these explanations with you, those who have experienced the same discomfort and found easy explanations in order to relieve themselves of this discomfort. People you trust, people you like, friends, family. But it’s just a way of avoiding real problems in order to live in a more comforting, imaginary world. I’ve come to realize this is not a good way to go through life, that reality can only be walled off for so long.
Fortunately, my wife woke up early one morning and managed to find an ATM, allowing me to carry some pesos along with me. The first thing I did was to give a meager amount to a man sleeping in a doorway across the street from our Airbnb. I thought at first that he was one who had so tugged at my heartstrings the night before when he pled with me for a little something and I had nothing to give, but it turned out to be someone else. There is no shortage of the truly needy. Nonetheless, I gave this man a few dollars and he gave me a “God bless you” in return. It was a greater blessing to me than any that could have been given by any spiritual or religious leader, and I have no doubt as to who got the better of that transaction. I was not expecting that. I was expecting a strictly financial transaction, but found myself dealing with a real human being capable of touching me as I did him.
It wasn’t much, and I certainly was no one’s savior, but I was now able to give a few coins to the indigent I met in the streets, was now able to see them as human beings, part of the same community and world I inhabited. The pull to resist such an attitude was strong both from myself and others, as if I was threatening to pull apart the very fabric of reality. And in a way, it was. It was the smallest participation in the message that Jesus delivered two millennia ago, it was the faith of a mustard seed which moved our perception of the world undiscernibly but undeniably. The mountain hadn’t moved much, but it had shifted, at least within my understanding. It’s an understanding that is threatening to the accepted way of viewing the world.
Cast your bread upon the water and you will anger those you call family and friends. Embrace ever so slightly the vision that our hope for security rests not in what we can gather for ourselves and loved ones from a harsh world but instead in our shared humanity, and you will witness just how radical Christ’s example was.
I can understand why people are afraid of Christ’s teaching, because it rips you away from all you’ve known, takes you away even from the security of family and friends and offers only the unseen and unproven community of humanity. But even the smallest taste of the reward of seeing Christ even in the eyes of the humblest among us will have you desiring more. And I understand the fear of believing in a sky god, so if that’s your hang-up, get rid of it for now. Embrace instead the idea of loving others as yourself, fearlessly. There is something to that notion that is real as gravity, though both are invisible forces. “Ah,” you say, “but science has proven gravity exists, it has not proven Christ’s message.” That may be true, but gravity did not require science’s blessing to exist, it had been doing its thing long before Sir Isaac Newton. It existed when man’s scientific understanding of the world they lived on could not fathom the Earth as a sphere but merely a flat plain. But the laws of gravity were obeyed despite the fact they were not understood, were intuited though not explored.
I invite you to investigate the radical notion of Christ’s teaching as a scientist would an unexplained natural phenomenon. With an open heart and an open mind. Not with a preconceived idea of what it is or is not, but with a curiosity for a force that has existed for millennia, an undeniable though as yet unexplainable something. I do not ask you to believe, in fact I think it is preferable that beliefs be left behind for this voyage. I ask only that you leave yourself open to the possibility of the experience, the seeing of the divine in even the least of your fellow human beings.
I could have done more, should probably always be doing more. Like I said before, I wasn’t anybody’s savior. But I do think perhaps we can all be each other’s saviors, each of us helping to save one another and humanity as a whole. And we can do so by always making the effort to see the humanity that exists in even the least of us.