It was a hot July day in Paris, and I wasn’t my best self. My body ached from lugging heavy bags on and off trains all day, my feet were dusty with city grime, and I was in desperate need of a shower and a big glass of water. We were on our way to the apartment where we’d be spending the summer while my husband did some research in the archives, and with a baby, a 4-year-old, and a huge suitcase in tow, I was ready for the day to be over.
I squinted at my phone, making sure the little blue dot on Google Maps was pointing in the right direction when the sudden stench of urine and feces hit me. On the sidewalk, with trains rattling across the railway bridge overhead, sat a cluster of old chairs, a tent, and some worn out sofa cushions with a group of Sri Lankan men sprawled across them, staring at us as we passed by. Some of them had bare feet with sores visible on their knuckles and toes. I glanced back at my phone, in part to avoid meeting their gaze; yes, this was our street.
“Oh no, we’re going to have to walk past these guys every day,” I thought to myself, a vague sense of unease settling in my chest as I clutched my daughter’s hand in mine. Then, they started talking to us all at once, waving their hands excitedly at our luggage — in the muddle, it was hard to make out what they were saying. I mumbled “Bonjour” and gave a quick strained smile in response as I tugged my daughter along a little harder behind me.
“Come on, we need to get to the apartment — nearly there!” I told her. But she was dragging her feet, staring, transfixed at the men.
“Do they live there under the bridge, mummy?” she asked, her eyes wide.
As the weeks went by, her fascination with “the men under the bridge” only increased. She wouldn’t accept my vague explanations about why they didn’t have a house, or where they might be from, or where they got enough to eat and drink each day. To her, it never stopped being shocking that they lived on the street, and she was full of plans and schemes to help them.
When I told her that one of the easiest and kindest things she could do was to show them she saw them and was interested in them, she learned how to say, “Hello, how are you?” in French, and spoke to them every day when we walked past. Whenever we went to buy bread from the local bakery together, she would always ask if we could give them something to eat.
Her friendly interest put me to shame; my first reaction when I’d seen the men under the bridge was fear that if I helped or encouraged them in any way, they’d start demanding more from me than I could give. Rather than seeing them as fellow human beings, I had come to think of homeless people as a bottomless pit of need that I couldn’t do anything about. My daughter’s innocent response to these men truly humbled me and woke me up to the radical message of the Gospel that tells us that how we treat the poor and vulnerable, the naked and hungry, is a reflection of our relationship with God.
As adults, we often become hardened to sights of poverty and need in our communities, and can even stop seeing them because we’re so used to ignoring them. We can’t help everyone, we reason, and so the fear of being needed “too much” sets in, and we hurry on past. Sometimes it takes seeing the world through the eyes of a 4-year-old to realign us with a Christian vision of what community really means.
At the end of the summer, when we told the men under the bridge that we would be leaving, they seemed genuinely sad. “We will miss your beautiful smile!” they told my daughter. She wanted to give them a goodbye present, and so we planned on giving them a special breakfast on the day that we left — but, as it turned out, they beat us to it. The day before we left, they gave her a present of their own (a night-light shaped like a bunny, wearing glasses like my daughter). Hugs were given, a few tears were shed.
When I thought about why I had been so touched and surprised by their generosity and kindness to my daughter, I realized I had been approaching them from a place of pride, not as true equals: I was thinking about what I could give to them, and never expected reciprocity of any kind from them. The fact is, though, even someone who sleeps rough has something to contribute to our lives, just by virtue of being a fellow person made in the image of God.
Perhaps Jesus calls us to serve others in part because in doing so, we become more open to being served by others, ourselves. It sounds counterintuitive, but sometimes my prideful heart finds it harder to be served than to serve, to ask for help than to give it. Ultimately, true service means really seeing the person we’re trying to help, getting to know them, and understanding their needs. And, you can’t do all of those things unless you enter into a relationship with them, and try to see them as God sees them.
The difference between the way I saw the men under the bridge and the way my daughter saw them was that to me they were an overwhelming problem that felt too big for me to fix, whereas to her they were people whom she wanted to get to know. Without realizing it, she showed me that simply entering into a relationship with someone is the first step toward the act of service and living out Jesus’ command to clothe the naked and feed the hungry.
As adults, we often end up skipping over that first step, but without it, we’re missing the point; it’s the relationships that draw us closer to God, and that changes us just as much as we can change the lives of others.