My collective experience with the homeless and impoverished has been fairly stereotypical. I’ve always felt it fairly easy to identify someone who is struggling in life solely based on their physical appearance. It’s funny how hard life smacks you in the face when you realize how wrong you’ve been about something.
One thing I love, love, love about where I work and the people who work there is that anyone who walks through our door is treated as a friend. There are hugs and kisses and discussions of incredible depth and meaning.. and that’s all before noon! As most of you know, I work with an HIV/AIDS ministry on the prevention side of things, so we offer free testing and then connect our clients with the appropriate services when they receive their results. While our focus is the HIV testing, I’m finding there aren’t many needs that we don’t at least attempt to address, whether it be supplying bus passes or bags of food or finding people jobs and homes. Because of this, people walk through our door with some truly heartbreaking yet remarkable stories. Also, as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, we all sit in one room together around a large table to work, so when clients come in, they often sit with all of us. While I’m picking up on names fairly quickly, I’m meeting so many people every day that it’s hard to keep up with who’s a pastor from this church and who’s a friend from that agency and who’s an HIV positive client and who’s a homeless woman. There isn’t anyone sitting behind a big power desk while you nervously spill your secrets. No one makes you shout through a tiny speaker in a foggy piece of bulletproof glass, so just in case you weren’t already embarrassed by your situation, you can go ahead and shout it out to a full waiting room. A lot of times, if I’m not a part of the conversations between the visitors and my coworkers, I truly wouldn’t know the difference between my coworkers family and a man living on the streets. I’m learning how truly invisible suffering can be.
A woman came in the other day and was chatting with my boss. At the time, I assumed she was a friend of hers just dropping by. My boss seems to know everyone anyway. I later find out this woman and her family have been living in her car for several months. Suffering can be invisible.
A young man came in for a meeting. He was clean and dressed normally; someone I could easily assume has all the same luxuries of life as I do. Through conversation, I soon learned he’s HIV positive and a victim of a life spent in foster care. He was drunk at the meeting. It was 10am. Suffering can be invisible.
A man comes in and spends the morning with us just talking, singing and watching YouTube videos on our computer. He was introduced as a friend of my coworker so I thought, for once this was a no brainer. Later, I find out he’s a Cuban refugee who came to the US illegally by way of Europe and is now being penalized by the US government for not fleeing Cuba properly. He’s allowed to stay in the US but is denied any assistance as a refugee for a full year. Suffering can be invisible.
One thing I hope to take from this year: removing my own masks and truly treating everyone like a friend despite theirs.