Every day we see homeless people roaming the streets of Porto Alegre. Statistics say this should not be surprising. For example, a 2016 study reported that our city has at least 1,400 people living on its streets.
Not all street people are the same. Some setup sturdy shelters with materials found around town and cover them with waterproof black plastic. In the mornings when we take Daniel to school we pass by a home like this with at least two people living in it. Most days the guys are out sweeping the sidewalk in front of their makeshift house as we pass them by. There is also a couple we drive by several times a week after language school that has accumulated mounds of blankets, pillows, and even shopping carts. Sometimes we see them together, sleeping on the pile, and other times the woman is a block away sitting by herself, while the man takes over the whole pile. Recently, a guy took up residency just steps from our apartment building. It has been reported that he is a bit unstable and has chased people down the street with a stick. The times I have seen him, he just sits and quietly stares at the ground. Some street people travel light. They carry around a blanket or two with them all day and lay down for the night in what seems to be a quiet spot. They might lay down all day too. It depends.
Last week I was riding along with Brandon to take Olivia to school. As we pulled up to a stoplight I saw man sitting on the sidewalk, leaned up against a store front. He looked to be in his 30s, wearing torn clothes and shoeless feet that were stained by the filth of the streets. Right in front of him was an almost empty one-liter bottle of liquor. He bobbed his head up and down repeatedly, as if he was struggling to stay awake. The whole time we were at the stoplight he stared intently at the bottle.
Although I see street people every day, for some reason the image of this man lingered with me for a while. I kept thinking: What is his story? How did he end up a drunkard on the street? No one aspires to be a drunkard on the street, ignored by the world as people go about their daily business. What did he dream about being when he was a kid? What prevented him from obtaining chasing that dream? Who is his family? Where is his family? When was the last time he felt loved?
In the following days I thought often about what led up to this moment for him. I imagined him as a small boy, maybe five years old, playing in the street with his friends before running home to his parents to be tucked in at night. I thought of him as a ten-year-old boy going to school, studying, making friends, and hoping for a good future. I saw in my mind a young man in his 20s, with a full adult life ahead of him.
While I was thinking of this man, I also thought of something else I routinely see. Our daughters’ school is not in the best part of town. At night, the streets close to the school are not ones you want to be walking on. Often around 6:00PM, when it is time to pick up Olivia, it is also time for the prostitutes to take up their stations on the corners, trying to catch the attention of Johns getting off from work. What happened to these young women to lead them to the streets? Is it desperation? Were they trapped in a human trafficking ring? Whose little girl is this? What is her story?
It is easy to drive by these people and stop noticing them. They are used to being invisible. In some ways I think that they may prefer not to be noticed, then they will not be asked to dismantle their temporary shelters and move along.
I believe that if our Savior were to walk the streets of Porto Alegre, then these people are the exact people that he would seek out. In the Gospels when Jesus encounters broken people he looks at them and knows their stories. He looks past the dirt, the smells, and the diseases to see the precious human underneath. He doesn’t scoff at them. Through all the broken parts he still sees his beloved creation. When people looked into the eyes of Jesus, they likely saw love, compassion, and understanding.
Do I have love, compassion and understanding with the people that God puts in my path? Do I care to think about the story of the person I am judging and dismissing? What about the refugee, the pregnant teen, the immigrant, the drug-addicted birth mom of a foster child?
It is so easy to look over humanity and see a blanket of horrible, sinful, selfish, brokenness. It is easy to label people and assume that by doing so we already know their story. We can safely tell ourselves that they are getting exactly what they deserve. They made bad choices. Maybe they did? Maybe they did not? Even if they did, do we deserve such a better life than them? Does not the Bible say that we are all sinners saved by grace? Paul understood this. He even called himself the chief of sinners.
When we forget that all we have and all we are is a gift from God and that is only by his grace that we live each day, our hearts become callous and more judgmental of those around us. We start to look at ourselves and our lives more highly that we ought. We turn away from the needy and ignore the hurting.
Last Friday, not long after I saw the man on the sidewalk with the bottle, Olivia was part of a Father’s Day celebration concert. After kids sang songs about how great their Dads are, we watched this video:
I could not believe the timing. As Corrie Ten Boom said, reflecting upon her time in a concentration camp, “no pit is so deep that he [Jesus] is not deeper still.” With God there is always hope, hope for the street people, the prostitutes, and even you and me.