Like I do early each Sunday morning, I walked out of my apartment to take a contemplative walk around Denver’s Cheesman Park. Complete with coffee in hand, the bright Sunday morning sun shined through my apartment window inviting me into a needed quiet space in the middle of a normally busy city.
The normalcy only lasted the few steps between the door to my apartment and the main entrance to the building. As I turned the corner and walked down the stairs to exit, I saw a man lying in the doorway. He was in the enclosure between the open exterior door and the locked door which allows entrance into the building.
I stood there for a few seconds. The man was clearly asleep. My mind raced. I could not quickly ascertain whether or not the man was homeless. He did not appear injured. As my mind continued to race, I thought that he might have been out late on Saturday and simply passed out drunk in a strange building.
For a few moments, I allowed fearful thoughts to run my mind. What if he is dangerous?, I asked. He could easily hurt me, my fearful self quipped.I tried to convince myself that I don’t need to help.
I started up the apartment stairs backwards thinking I could avoid an encounter if I simply went out the back entrance.
I stopped. I pondered once again. He clearly needs help, I told myself.
I walked out the front door and leaned down toward the man. As softly as I could while still being loud enough to gently wake him, I asked, “Are you okay, man?”
He woke up, mildly startled. He was disoriented. “I just needed to sleep”, he said.
He jumped to his feet on his own accord, albeit with a stumble in his step. I asked him if he needed help, or if I could call him a ride to somewhere. He shook his head and walked quickly out the door and down the street.
Needless to say this brief and unordinary encounter at my apartment door filled my thoughts for that Sunday morning walk. I wondered about his name, about who he was. More than anything, I prayed he would be okay.
I share this story not because I did something grand by offering a simple gesture. To the contrary, I almost backed away to avoid the situation entirely. Yet there was something that drew me to him that morning. Over the past few months I have been quite bothered by the abhorrent political and religious rhetoric that talks about people rather than with people. The situations that some in our country face – homelessness, chronic illness, etc. – are so often used as talking points to prove whatever our position may be as the “right” one versus the other. Yet so few times do we actually take practical actions to help those whom we are speaking of. I am as guilty of this as anyone.
As I’ve studied the mystics over these past few years, I have been drawn to the idea that we do not do acts of help or justice. Those acts should stem from our ability to look past the social structures that impede our ability to love and relate. In Eager to Love, Fr. Richard Rohr writes, “you do not ‘do’ acts of peace and justice as much as your life is itself peace and justice.”
In these tumultuous times, I think the challenge for us is to mute the talking heads and incessant amateur political commentary and look for ways to help those around us who are in need. And when we find ourselves stuck, captivated in the ongoing rhetoric, we need to ask ourselves why. Is the message we are hearing or seeing reinforcing our structures that we perceive to keep us safe? Do we just want to feel right and superior? Surely these are all factors, but factors we must move past. We need to see each other as people. The more we can do this, the more we can begin to heal a world that is increasingly divided. What may seem like a small gesture to us may be a divine to someone that is ignored and outcast. Sometimes you may not even have to look further than your own doorway.