How often do we find ourselves rushing past strangers, avoiding eye contact or keeping our eyes downcast as we walk past them? We don’t want to see their faces because what we might look upon could reflect our pain, or that we might have to engage with them, worse yet, stop thinking about ourselves to think about them. Let us give those experiencing homelessness and mental impairments the gift of mattering and put to use this concept of practicing the presence of people, defined as the art of seeing people as Jesus does, as the most critical thing in this world, including the development of and an openness and awareness of the presence of God in others. It is a process of turning our hearts towards others and finding a way to express to them that they matter, and we care.
One in five American adults suffers from mental illness or addiction in the United States. More than 340,000 adults and 100,000 children live with grave mental health conditions. In the City of Rome, we have 320 homeless children attending our schools and 390 homeless students in Floyd County living in a non-home type of environment, as reported by Devon Smyth, executive director of William S. Davies Homeless Shelter. Every community experiences homelessness but how we respond to that is what matters most. Romans of Floyd County have extended a more than generous hand in many instances with their initiative, generosity, funding, caring and support for the mentally ill and the homeless living on our streets and in the woods. I think that this community deserves an award for all that it has done and is currently doing for locals that have not been able to remain stable in a world filled with uncertainty.
The closing of Northwest Regional Hospital in 2011 was a tragedy, an end to a necessary support system that helped over 2,000 residents suffering from mental health conditions and developmental disabilities. They suddenly found themselves in a very different world upon release, and on our streets in some cases. Those that relocated to various programs and semi-independent living facilities within Floyd County were the lucky ones. There is still more work to be done. These individuals give us many opportunities to think outside of ourselves and to practice the presence of people every day.
When we see someone that isn’t very clean, talking to themselves, panhandling or behaving strangely, this is when we need to practice the presence of people. Sometimes surviving isn’t always about a full belly and a place to lay your head. These folks need to know they matter! Instead of looking through people, let us pay attention to our blindness. It is so easy not to see living, breathing human beings as we have become so busy and full of ourselves. Every face reflects the untold stories of one’s fears, but faces also reflect facets of God’s image. Each of us reveals something of the divine beauty that all others long to see, so let’s look up and into their faces and experience this.
We are given invitations every day to love others, and in doing so, it takes us out of ourselves and into God. He wants each one of us to find out what it is like to live as though people do matter. We must retrain ourselves to believe that people aren’t interruptions, pit stops, schedule breakers, deal breakers or annoyances even when they are not behaving as we think they should. Don’t most folks quietly hope that someone will see them differently and invest time with them, whether they are experiencing hardships or not?
Where I have seen this phenomenon working precisely as it should is at our Community Kitchen in Rome. This is where I have seen the practicing of the presence of people occurring beautifully every day by the volunteers. I see it through the generosity of Seasons Events Catering, Homestead Restaurant, Publix, Kroger, the school nutrition programs and so many more generous vendors in our community. Let this be a season of practicing the presence of people with the people who are marginalized and suffering in some way. Here are some ideas on how to do that. Of course, opening our wallets is always one way, but here are some others that take little or no time and are free:
1. Notice when you put yourself before others.
2. Notice who you talk to and who you don’t.
3. Notice your reactions to being interrupted.
4. Practice courtesy, which can enable one’s eyes to see others more clearly.
5. Practice random acts of kindness.
6. Practice the “One Another’s” as developed by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, in her book “Spiritual Disciplines Handbook,” in the community: love one another, forgive one another, encourage one another, accept one another, bear one another’s burden, speak truthfully to one another, teach one another, don’t grumble against one another and honor one another.*
Choose a different one to practice each week with strangers and loved ones, as we become enmeshed in our holiday duties.
Just know that when you gaze into someone’s eyes, as scary as that might be, you may be surprised at what glimpses back at you and how much you can learn about yourself in the process. Let us take our blinders off.
*For more information on this subject matter, enjoy the extraordinary book by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun titled “Invitations from God.” Betty Schaaf’s email is email@example.com