I was 6 years old when I first saw a person who was homeless. That image, and my thoughts and feelings along with it, are seared into my brain.
Our family was vacationing in Atlanta, in the dead of winter. Looking out the frosty car window, I saw the elderly man, lying on the sidewalk, dressed in a ragged long black coat. He was propped on one elbow. Our eyes met for a long second. He needed clothes and shelter, and he looked hungry. But there was something else missing, something else he needed, although my first-grade mind could not name it.
Imagine this. A person, homeless and hungry, on the street in New York City, sitting in front of a first-class meal, the likes of which you’d get in the finest restaurants on the Upper East Side. Multiple courses of expertly cooked and seasoned food of the highest quality, folded linen napkins, and fresh flowers.
It’s not imaginary. My friend, Roger Sharpe, once lived in New York City. Roger has a big and creative heart that always shines through in his notable and varied careers, whether as professor, author, or politician and elected official. At age 29, he was, at the time, the youngest ever elected to the North Carolina Senate. In his legislative work, teaching and writings, he brings creativity and deep caring for others. In New York, Roger looked into the eyes of hundreds of people homeless on the streets. He knew he couldn’t feed them all.
Roger is a connoisseur of good food and an excellent cook as well. When cooking his own dinner each evening, Roger prepared a second gourmet meal. With hot food, folded napkins and flowers meticulously placed in a nice tray, Roger walked down Broadway, introducing himself to the first person he saw rummaging through a garbage can. Through the years only one person turned down the meal, thinking Roger was trying to poison him. Roger served meals to hundreds, but he provided something more than food for their hungry stomachs. Dignity.
In New York, Roger was associated with The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, where he organized a banquet for people who were homeless. Roger insisted the meal be served in the finest room of this marvelous Gothic church — a paneled room with a fireplace where elaborate weddings were held.
My wife, Susan, is youth minister at our church. She’s led her youth and parish in collecting caps and long-sleeved shirts for farmworkers who labor in the hot sun day after day to provide food for our tables. Farmworker leaders told her these clothing items are badly needed. But Susan makes clear to parishioners the clothing must be high quality, clean, and in good shape. If soiled and ragged caps or shirts come in, Susan recycles them in a direction other than farmworkers. The youth of our church deliver caps and shirts … and dignity.
I encountered more beggars and people living on streets the summer I was in India than any other time or place in my life. I never arrived at one way to respond in these situations. Sometimes I gave money. On other occasions, I stopped to chat, occasionally giving money and sometimes not. And other times I avoided eye contact and walked past.
I have a friend who oversees a county homeless program in a large urban area. I shared with him my experience in India and asked how he handles meeting people on the street in his city. In all the valuable insights he gave me, one remark stood out. My friend said, “I find that most people who are homeless would prefer a conversation over money. I always give eye contact and often have a conversation with them. That seems to give them some dignity.”
I now suspect what was missing in the eyes of that man on the street in Atlanta who caught my first-grade eye. Food, yes. Shelter, yes. But, perhaps most of all, dignity.
Calvin Mercer teaches at East Carolina University. Contact him ([email protected]) to receive the newsletter where he addresses community issues.