By Larry James
For some reason his shoes caught my attention first. He looked to be about sixty years old, though I expect his life on the street had tacked on a decade of wear and tear to his physical appearance. He walked into our Thursday morning "community leaders training meeting" without introduction, not that he needed any. He was welcomed, but no one knew him. Gray hair and a neatly trimmed beard gave him a distinguished look. But, back to his shoes. The shoes were simple, white canvas Keds, a style usually worn by a woman or a child. Thin soles and worn cotton uppers combined in a futile attempt to cover and support his feet against both street and weather. I'm not completely sure why, but my eyes kept coming back to those shoes.
Our training that morning focused on the power, importance and necessity of genuine love in the community building process. To illustrate a point about the practical nature of real love and the dignity it always serves up, I referred to a recent banquet for homeless persons hosted in the Dallas Convention Center by Potter's House church. A friend of mine who attended the event reported that a group of greeters were stationed at each entrance to welcome every guest with a round of applause and a warm thanks for coming. Three thousand meals were served and each person received the red carpet treatment. As I told the story, our guest raised his hand. "I was there," he told us.
"You were? How did you like it? What was it like?" I asked.
"How were you treated?" I followed up.
"Real nice. I took two pieces of cake to put in my bag, but I dropped them and made a big mess! Some people rushed over and told me not to worry about it. They cleaned up my mess and gave me more cake. They treated me real nice," he explained.
Our training time ended. The day began as usual with scores of men and women flowing through our food pantry seeking emergency assistance with food, rent and utilities. Our new friend stayed to request some help as well. I saw him later in the morning seated in the interview room drinking coffee. I couldn't help but notice his shoes again. Likely obtained from some church or charity's clothing closet, those shoes were the best he could do. As I observed him, humble and waiting for food, I couldn't shake the image of those shoes. I know in some way he and I are vitally connected. I wouldn't want to walk the streets wearing his shoes. But, because he does, I am affected. We are joined, he and I, by a common, unbreakable bond of humanity. His shoes, his life continue to pull at my heart. The words of Ghandi pulled me up short later in the week as I worked my way through Marianne Williamson's powerful new book,The Healing of America.
Too easily and too often I fool myself into believing the twin lies that one, I am independent of others and their concerns, and two, that I am powerless in the face of human misery and suffering. We all are joined to one another in this world. The challenge is to see, to admit and to embrace this truth. And, while I cannot do everything, I can, when confronted with the pain of another person, do something. At the very least, I could ask my new friend about his shoes.
I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate taking is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny?...Then you will find your doubt and your self melting away (page 98).
Copyright © 1996, Larry James.
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