A Small Seed of Compassion

September 9, 2015 by

There was nothing attractive about the small apartment that reeked of urine. The floor was sticky underfoot and old newspapers lay in patches throughout the house absorbing the latest accidents. The nicotine-stained wallpaper had started peeling in places, and dirty dishes cluttered the kitchen area. And there was nothing appealing about the lady and her elderly mother who met us at the door. Their unkempt hair hung in greasy clumps around their wrinkled faces; their nails were dirty and chipped. But as they timidly opened the door, their almost-toothless smiles let us know that it was OK to enter. No one else dared venture in, and they rarely left the apartment.

I was only eleven at the time. Usually Saturday afternoons were spent swimming, helping my Dad in his garden, or playing at the playground, but Bud and Doris, friends of my family, had invited me to come along. On each visit we spent a couple hours cleaning up the filthy apartment, bathing the two women, and making sure they had enough food. On my first visit I was nervous and a little turned-off by the grime and odor. But this was now my third visit and I knew there would be more.

What compelled me to keep going back? Maybe it was a chance to get away from my brothers, or maybe it was my sense of adventure, or my love for soft ice cream (we would stop at Dairy Queen on the way home), or maybe there was just a small seed of compassion in me for those less fortunate.

I grew up in a small town in rural Connecticut. My parents loved all eight of us kids and gave us the happiest childhood anyone could wish for. Still, we were selfish and naughty and drove my Mom to tears many times. But my parents taught us, from an early age, to look out for people who were lonely or marginalized. Very often our Sunday afternoons were spent visiting old people in assisted living or nursing homes. My mom would tell us stories of her daddy and how he would visit and befriend the most impoverished neighbors in the mountainous region where they lived, south of Pittsburgh. I was especially intrigued and horrified by the story of a woman who starved to death in her own home. Her son, on the verge of starvation, was found by the police, hospitalized, and then welcomed into my mom’s family, where he spent the next eleven years.

When I first left home I found myself visiting nursing homes and jails and serving in soup kitchens. When I was nineteen I lived and worked in a house in Los Angeles where we took in and cared for elderly or disabled homeless people.

Several years passed, and I moved to Harlem four and a half years ago. After readjusting to the culture and the concrete, I adapted fairly quickly to the city noise, smells, and the fast pace of daily existence. But I couldn’t get accustomed to the increasing number of people I saw eating out of garbage cans on the street corners, sleeping on park benches, or begging on the trains. Homelessness in New York City is at an all-time high. It’s the highest it’s ever been since the Great Depression. There are over 58,000 homeless people living in the shelter system. Of those, almost 24,000 are children. (Source: Basic Facts About Homelessness: New York City). These numbers don’t even include the thousands more who are not in the shelter system and sleep outside in the freezing temperatures of winter or the scorching heat of summer.

Close friends of mine warned me not to get calloused to the need and suffering around me. They warned me not to harden my heart towards the poor. I thought I had heeded their words, but over the last two years I have been surprised by my reactions to people I encountered. I considered the bandaged woman in a wheel chair begging on the “A train” to be a hoax. I was frustrated by the man I walked past every day near the Lincoln Center who lay asleep all day on his cardboard mat. I had offered him a directory of where he could find food and shelter, but he only wanted money. I couldn't believe the man snorting cocaine behind his cardboard sign which read, “Homeless, anything helps.”

My strongest reaction was towards the many young adults I saw begging in midtown and downtown. Most of them were in their twenties and sat on the sidewalk with a collection cup and a cardboard sign. Why were all these people so destitute at such an early age? It seemed like a staged experiment. Had they been assigned by a college class to experience what it might feel like to be homeless? But the “assignment” went on too long for that.

This past February I started working as a full time nanny in mid-town Manhattan. My commute had a repetitious rhythm to it. Every day, I got off the subway at Rockefeller Center, walked past the three newspaper hawkers chanting their sales pitches, past the outdoor cheering crowds of the NBC Today Show, past Rockefeller Plaza, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the flagship stores on Fifth Avenue, and on towards Madison Avenue. Keeping my head down to lessen the impact of the driving snow and wind, I would cross Madison, and there, crumpled outside Starbucks, would be a young woman with a cup and a cardboard sign. Everything inside of me wanted to tell her to get up off her butt and go and find a job before she froze to death. But I stayed silent and hurried on by. Every day she was there and every day I didn’t want to look at her. I even avoided her side of the street. I had become calloused.

a young woman begging on a street corner in New York CityPhotograph by the author

Once a month we at the Harlem Bruderhof House invite men from the Bowery Mission to join us for dinner. We share a meal, sing hymns, and listen to the men give their testimonies of how they ended up at the mission. Since it opened its doors in 1879, the mission has helped thousands of homeless men and women by helping them find a faith in Jesus and begin to lead a disciplined life. The program also gives them the opportunity to further their education, find work, and eventually secure an apartment.

Recently at dinner we heard the testimony of a young man who had grown up in a middle class home in the mid-west. He had a good family and a happy childhood. But misfortune arose; his father got in trouble with the law and found himself in jail. Over the next few years their family unraveled and this young man found himself in bad company, began doing drugs, and became homeless. He led an extremely violent life and was almost killed a number of times.

Compassion saved him. Someone who had known him before things had gone wrong recognized him, drugged-out, on the street one day. He stopped to find out how he was doing and told him that he was too good to be throwing his life away. The man then went further and gave him money to buy a bus ticket to a rehab program in another state. His trust was betrayed and the money was spent on drugs instead. But on the second try, this young man made it through rehab and had a conversion. A few years later he found himself at the Bowery Mission serving and counseling those who, like himself, had bottomed out.

I was touched and condemned by his story. My callousness outside Starbucks came back to me in a rush. After dinner I spoke to him about my attitude towards homeless people. He encouraged me to find compassion again. “Each one of us has a story,” he said. “Reach out and talk to them….”

And it really can be that simple. On my next commute, I chose the Starbucks side of the street. I approached the young woman, who was slumped over from her daily dose. I crouched down to say good morning and immediately she sat up and opened her bright blue eyes. Her hair was a tangled mess, her skin grimy. I asked her name, how she was doing, and if she would like to know where to get help. Nicki managed a smile, and reassured me that she was fine and in the process of getting help. I didn’t believe her, but in the short conversation we had, Nicki became a person to me and not just a crumpled heap to be avoided. As I turned to walk down the street, I watched as she broke up a muffin and threw it to the small flock of house sparrows that had come to rely on Nicki for their breakfasts.

And as the mounting number of new luxury apartment buildings piercing the skyline seem to directly correlate with the spikes in the number of homeless people, I find my compassion for the poor increasing as well. The seed of compassion that was instilled in me as a child is growing again and now I look forward to seeing Nicki every day.

Anita Clement works as a full-time nanny in midtown Manhattan and lives at the Harlem Bruderhof House.


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