By Jeff Goins, Editor
Continued from Finding Calcutta
After climbing over a waist-high, cement barricade that read “DEATH” in spray paint, navigating through some overgrown vines and shrubbery, and stumbling down a worn path that would have sent you head-first into the river if you took just one wrong step, we came upon an abode beneath the city.
The area was an encampment of six souls and their possessions on the slant of land beneath a concrete substructure of the street. There were cans, bottles, mud-caked clothes, papers, blankets, old shoes, plastic bags, and garbage that populated the area. We looked up towards the surface, which was less than twenty feet above us and could see people passing by, but it was highly unlikely that they could see us and even more unlikely that they would look down.
My heart broke. I guess my imagination didn’t conjure this when I thought of people living in poverty. In fact, I didn’t really think much at all about how the poor lived. They were homeless, which meant that they didn’t have a home, right? Wrong – the homeless do have a home, and it was hard for my eyes to see.
Neither proud nor ashamed, Steve matter-of-factly showed us around the camp and explained how he lived. As we were dealing with not being overwhelmed by what we saw, a couple of his friends returned. We met Jimbo and George. George didn’t speak very much English, but the first word he said when he saw us was, “Jesus!” He repeated it until Paul gave him a hug.
“I think he just wanted to be touched,” Paul later told me. I shook his tender hand and was warmed by the glow of his smile. As we left, Steve explained that there were countless such areas along the river and throughout the cityeven communities that lived in caves.
As far as I know, the poverty rate is not even “that bad” in Nashville. The hardest part was that this was real. Real people. Really living in such conditions. It wasn’t just another statistic. We touched them. And perhaps more importantly, they touched us.
You can tell me that almost three-quarters of the homeless in this nation are mentally ill, that some are just lazy, and that our government does a great job of providing opportunities for them to reform their lives, but when you’re staring in the dirty face of poverty, none of that matters. You just see someone with a need that you want to meet.
We ended up giving Steve a ride to his next hot meal. The car filled with his stench, and when he left, I missed the smell. It lingered for awhile, but eventually left. I sniffed my hand that had shaked both his and Jesse’s hands a couple times, and that smell had also passed. I wanted it to stay, to remind me that I could be doing more to serve these children of God, that I, too, had a stench that was washed away.
As we processed our short trip to the riverside, Paul made the observation that all of this goes on every day, beneath the surface of the city, where businessmen and women walk to and from their work places, willingly or unwillingly ignorant of the world under them, some possibly hoping that they will not have the inconvenience of running into a beggar at least once this week.
We sometimes stare the need in the face – a dirty, possibly drunk face – and ignore it. We judge it. We condemn it. We forget it. We don’t think about it, because if we practice ignorance long enough, we don’t even notice it anymore. It goes underground, and we’re content with the surface of things. If all appears to be relatively well – with our social programs, shelters, and outreach meals – then that is good enough to put our consciences to rest.
Mother Theresa, who ministered to the poor in Calcutta, India, said that people need not come to her to find the poor; she said that Calcutta was everywhere and anywhere that there are needy and lonely people. I now believe her.
If we are willing to dig deep, to find Calcutta in our own backyard, I believe that God will change our hearts, and we will become the compassionate people we are destined to be in Christ.
“You can find Calcutta anywhere in the world. You only need two eyes to see. Everywhere in the world there are people that are not loved, people that are not wanted nor desired, people that no one will help, people that are pushed away or forgotten. And this is the greatest poverty.” -Mother Teresa
If you liked this article, check out: Homeless for a Day
Jeff graduated from Illinois College, a small liberal arts school, with a degree in Spanish and Religion. He lives in Nashville, TN. He works for Adventures in Missions, edits this silly little magazine, and loves to do new things. He just got married in January.