I sat on a wall between the beach and the road in Thailand. To my right, three teens were in conversation with my colleagues. Silently praying, I watched facial expressions and body language. Since I’d just arrived, I understood little, but I could guess the gist of the conversation. To my left, within arm’s reach, a middle-aged woman bargained with a European man over the price of her body for the day. I wanted to shout at him, tell him to go home. But what good would that do? I looked down the wall: dozens more women waited.
My colleagues later explained the teen sisters’ story of coming to the city for work. They had been tricked. Too young to be hired anywhere legally, now they were fending for themselves.
Meeting those girls rocked me. The center I worked at could not legally take them because of their age. My colleagues promised to stay in touch. Wasn’t there anything else to do? Yet there were hundreds of girls in their situation. I grew overwhelmed, with no idea how to cope. Weekdays were long. By the time weekends came, I needed rest, but it eluded me. Outside, anywhere I went, I saw woman after woman, girl after girl. It seemed so selfish for me to enjoy anything while they suffered. Inside my house, I was tormented. Shouldn’t I be outside trying to help someone, trying to do something about this?
When I moved, several years later, to a new country, a new setting, a little further north and east, the poverty came in different form but was still a daily presence. I encountered children, the disabled, elderly, and widows asking for money whenever I did my shopping, or sat in my taxi at the light. By now, I had learned some lessons. I am not the savior. These problems are far bigger than me, and I am only responsible to do my part. However, I still had daily decisions to make. Will giving here make the problems worse? Will not giving mean this child goes without a meal? The questions have no simple solutions. However, for keeping the softness of my own heart, I began to discover that giving a little is better than closing off, going cold. I could not make anyone’s poverty disappear, but even a few coins might mean that someone could eat, or pay for a bandage.
In spite of my attempts to stay soft, I began to slip into a semi-conscious complacency, a type of giving up. Instead of, “How can I rescue everyone?” I now shrugged, “What can I possibly do? Better not think too hard.”
One day, I was badly jolted out of that state. Baji (older sister), the good friend who faithfully comes to iron and clean for my flatmate and me, arrived with a pouch of ingredients.
“Can you bake a cake for my daughter’s birthday?” she asked.
I agreed a little grudgingly. I had many other things happening, but I squeezed it in.
The next day, Baji mentioned a little shyly that she was glad for the cake. She had arrived home thinking there would be a little money left for groceries, but it had all gone to another bill. She and her kids had eaten cake, and only cake, for dinner. They ate the last of the cake for breakfast. Now there was nothing.
My ears, which had been casually listening, suddenly grew alert.
“You mean…nothing else? Why didn’t you tell us?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Well, it just happens sometimes at the end of the month.”
I knew things were hard, knew that even three jobs did not provide enough for Baji’s daily life. Sometimes I became annoyed at knowing this, because it seemed there was nothing more I could do. We paid fair wages and tried to be generous. But somehow, until this moment, I had allowed myself to be oblivious to what Baji’s lack of resources meant in the day-to-day. Actual hunger.
There was always food in our house, always something except in the rare occasion that we had neglected to buy groceries. Baji came to our house. She knew what was in our fridge. We shared so many things about our lives. She knew us so well… and yet, sometimes she had been going home without anything to eat? It was such a disturbing thought. Suddenly the poverty became something less removed, something much closer. It was no longer happening to “those people” but rather to my good friend. I suddenly saw my selfishness, my own refusal to see.
The months since then have been an exercise in learning to see again. I still acknowledge I can’t be savior. Giving from a place of reaching downwards is unhelpful anyway. It is not how the Savior came to us. He became one of us. My exercise has been to allow myself to feel, to truly see that poverty does not put others into a different category of humanity. Feeling and seeing are disconcerting. It is painful because there are no obvious solutions.
Yet, somehow, I am more prepared to respond, to love the face in front of me rather than just seeing another beggar, another societal problem. Somehow, I am readier to hear the voice of the Master showing me my part.
How have your encounters with poverty changed you? What have you learned about keeping your heart tender toward those you see?