At lunchtime yesterday I went to a church-hall where food was being served to people who have lodging and maybe a change of clothes but not much else. They did have a lot of Christmas cheer though, and they all greeted me warmly. One man asked if I had met his grandchildren yet. I told him that I had not and that I wanted to, so he took me to meet them.
Detroit is so rough, so real. It is the stuff reality is made of…which is to say, when you hear about it, you know it is true, because no one could make it up.
Earlier in the summer, when I met this man, two of his small-child grandchildren had been killed on a block in Detroit. I am unaware of all of the details, but as I recall, the children were playing outside on the sidewalk in front of the house, as children do. Their parents and assorted other caring, responsible adults were on the porch, visiting in the summer weather. And then, a criminal in a car, who I think was being chased by the police, rounded the corner, speeding up the road, swerving on and off of the sidewalk.
And that car hit two of this man’s grandbabies, who died, their summer-toys scattered and destroyed.
I knew this story, and I want you to know it too, and then I went to see his other grandchildren.
There were two boys, aged two and four, but big for their ages. He told me their names, and I stooped down so that my eyes were at the level of their eyes. The little one held out his hand to me, his left hand, which is the wrong one if you’re trying to shake hands. But, he was only two, so I held his hand in mine and released, like you do when you’re shaking hands anyway.
His brother, four years old, held out his right hand and shook my hand, like a mini adult with a soft little baby-hand. I turned back to the two-year-old–he was holding out his hand again. I shook it again. His brother held out his hand again, so I shook it again. This went on for a few turns, each one holding out their hands to me, and I would shake and release.
Once, though, as I held the four-year-old brother’s hand I thought, “Maybe they want me to hold on…longer.”
Then I turned to the two-year-old. He had swiveled in his chair. He was holding both hands up to me, his giant brown eyes staring into mine, that universal sign of, “Pick me up? Hold me?”
I should have. I know I should have.
Here’s the thing, though: in the time I had turned from him to his brother, he had apparently spilled a full cup of brown pop ALL OVER HIMSELF. It was dripping all over his face and all over his coat and all over the table, the plate, the floor.
There he stood, though, hands out to me with the
baby human needs of assurance and affection. This baby from the rough streets of Detroit, this baby whose family is still mourning the death of two other babies, this baby with the big, brown eyes and the mixed-race afro.
Here’s the thing, though (and I hate that I’m sharing this)–the coat I was wearing was wool. Wool can only be dry-cleaned. And because of that, I try really hard to keep my woolens clean for as long as possible. I felt like a baby dripping in pop was probably in direct opposition to that.
I looked around for parents–there were none, just a disinterested relative at the other side of a long table. I started to say, “Your baby is dripping in pop,” but instead I just said, “Can I have a napkin?”
And I hoisted the boy up by his armpits (read: still a distance from me), and I set him in front of me and I wiped his coat and his face with a paper napkin, then I put my hand on the side of his face, cupping his cheek. Someone did that to me once and I was struck by how comforting and loving it was, and that’s what I wanted to do for him. So, I held his face like that.
Have you ever met a two-year old boy? Have you ever met a four-year-old boy? Mostly they love to run around and make mechanical noises and karate-kick imaginary bad guys. But, not these two. These two just held out their hands to me, looked up at me, told me in limited-child-vocabulary about the porch at their house, the one time one of them fell over, things like that.
This is Detroit to me. So real, so raw.
The other day I read a joke on the internet and it said:
Heh. Heh heh.
I get what you’re saying, there.
But, I also want to say: yo, go out and encounter people. Especially the poor.
Do you live in a neighborhood where most people are in your income bracket? Welcome to America. Consider getting in your car and driving somewhere where there are people who are really struggling. And talk to them. That’s what they want. The babies aren’t going to be standing there like, “Hi, can you buy me some sweet swag with your elite-dollars?”
More likely they’re going to look at you and reach at you like, “You. You with caring eyes–will you love me…just for a minute?”
This is how the low-income elderly in my area respond to me, too. Gratitude and care.
Do you want to know something that makes me really, really uncomfortable? Receiving gifts. Now, I’ve conditioned myself pretty well if I know you, and I know you have a job and I know you have expendable income…then I will receive your gift. But if you don’t, well, I just feel pretty dang guilty.
And yet, almost every day a low-income senior citizen approaches me with something–be it a new necklace or a piece of candy or a pair of gloves or a card or…I could go on and on and on.
What do I do for them? Not much. Mostly I just say things like, “Hi, how are you?” and “How is that art coming along that you were telling me about?” and “You have a lot of good memories, don’t you?”
It’s so simple it’s stupid.
Do you want to hear about the homeless? I see them, too. And, yes, you need to be careful and, yes, some of them spend money on drugs.
But still. I go out to see them sometimes, passing out socks and sandwiches and do you know what they say? They say, “God bless you.”
Receiving a blessing from a homeless person is one of the most profound experiences a person can encounter.
This is the season of giving and family and light and everything.
On one hand–be careful. Sure, be careful. But on the other hand: I’m an idiot and that coat could have been cleaned for a few dollars. That child, though, deserved to be hugged.
Maybe what you’re thinking I’m saying in this post is, “Give five bucks to the person on the corner.”
I’m not saying that. That’s usually not a helpful thing for that person.
Instead I’m saying: find a person who is lonely or hurting (p.s. THIS IS MOSTLY EVERYONE EVER) and literally reach your hand out to them and touch them. I know, it’s so weird. Because we are in America and we don’t do that. But, reach out and touch their shoulder and say, “Friend, how are you?”
Maybe from here to Christmas, try to touch one person every day. Try to extend a few minutes of real-life love instead of getting online or closing your door.
It’s only just over a week’s worth of time.
And if that seems like a lot to you, remember…there was once a homeless couple looking for lodging who were rejected time and time again. And I’m sure everyone absolutely had nice woolen coats that they didn’t want ruined. And because of that–everyone missed out on a whole lot of grace now, didn’t they?