Wednesday, February 6, 2019

I Was Homeless and You Gave Me a Place to Lay My Head

“I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”   
--Albert Camus, The Plague

It's something I always wonder about, even worry about, on those sub-zero frigid nights New England is known for this time of year.  Maybe I'm running out to my car from my warm workplace, a fifty yard parking lot sprint in the chill.  Or I shuffle down my driveway to get the mail and feel the icy sting of wind.  Or I awaken and see the snowflake like frozen patterns on my bedroom windows, a toasty 68 degrees inside but just 8 degrees outside.

What is it like to live on the street in such winter weather?

What is like to hunker down under a cardboard box below a Route 93 highway overpass and try and stay, not just warm, but alive? What is it like to wander the streets of the city all day, a backpack filled with your meager possessions, your route taking you to churches and shelters who can protect you from the cold--at least for awhile? What is it like to struggle with mental illness or an addiction, or both, and have those afflictions doom you to a life forever wandering in this world, never finding a stable place to lay your head?

I especially wondered about these questions last week when the mid-west (and Boston to a lesser degree) was hit with its coldest temperatures in more than a generation.  It's one thing to live on the streets when it is merely freezing. Its another when to live on the streets is a potential death sentence, as temperatures plunged in Chicago to -50 below zero.  In such extreme weather frostbite happens in minutes.  Fall into a snow bank and pass out and you could die oh so fast.

But one Chicago women, Candace Payne: she decided to go beyond asking those questions, wondering and actually did something to love and protect and care for the homeless folks in her city. On the most bone chilling of nights in the windy city last week, on the "spur of the moment" in her own words, Payne spent $4,700 of her own money to rent hotel rooms for more than 100 homeless people in Chicago. Putting out a call on social media for help transporting folks to that shelter, Payne was soon inundated: with more volunteers, and with even more donations, some $10,000! Thus those folks experiencing homelessness got to stay in a warm and safe hotel room not just for one night but for four nights. And Payne didn't stop at lodging: she also purchased and solicited donations of food and toiletries and clothes. Area restaurants brought by fresh meals.  There were pre-natal vitamins and care for two pregnant women.

It was all kind of a miracle: especially at a time when it is so tempting to see only the harder aspects of life in our country these days, or to listen only to the bullies and the braggarts, or to the folks whizzing around town in their no doubt toasty limousines, doing little or nothing for strangers on a cold winter night.             

So why did Payne act with such generosity and commitment? She was not employed by a social service agency nor for a religious organization nor is she a social worker or counselor.  Payne is actually a real estate broker.  What moved her to actually do something? What moves any person to respond with mercy to the struggles of a fellow child of God?

I think it was Payne's compassion.  That's the human ability to enter into and be able to imagine another's suffering, and then to act to alleviate that pain. Compassion remembers, "That could be me." Compassion demands moral imagination, the gift of being moved by another's plight so much that we dare to love them, even a stranger. Compassion sets aside the need to judge or worse to not even see the "other". 

Said Payne, "I am a regular person. It all sounded like a rich person did this, but I’m just a little black girl from the South Side. I thought it was unattainable, but after seeing this and seeing people from all around the world, that just tells me that it’s not that unattainable. We can all do this together.”

On a cold winter's day, when our deep freeze will settle in for at least another six weeks,   I know Payne's compassion is good news that absolutely warms me up. Reminds me that there are every day regular people doing extraordinary things each day to make this world a better and kinder place.  To live with compassion.  

Someone was cold and needed a warm place to sleep. Someone said, "I will help."  So thank you and God bless you Ms. Payne for reminding us that each of us can make a difference in this world.  We just have to wonder about another's lot in life and then roll up our sleeves and get to work.

We can all do this together.


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