Doubletakes: The Infant in the Panhandler

Posted by Sarah Cunningham:

In college, I chose to minor in Urban Studies, which is basically a college-endorsed excuse for exploring cities across the United States.

(Better than say, a minor in historical anthropology.)

Of course it wasn"t just cities I was studying. It was the people who lived in them. And the problems that crept up when so many humans crammed into so little space.

During this program, I spent two semesters living in a homeless shelter in south side Chicago. Being a skinny white girl strolling around the largest African American community in the United States was an experience that takes up more than one blog post, but suffice to say, it made a dent in the way I looked at people.

When I first moved to Chicago, I saw the world in snapshots. Little moments, awkward experiences, yanked on my attention span and stuck with me.

A spent elderly veteran annoying tourists into giving him a dollar--basically in exchange for leaving them alone. A mentally ill homeless person who warned my friends and I that the public library was a secret execution chamber. Cars that neighborhood kids lit on fire from time to time, seemingly just because they had nothing better to do.

Some of these snapshots stirred judgment in me. Why didn"t the veteran get a job? How many of these people were really mentally ill or had they just gone on too many acid trips and just never come back?

But the more snapshots I saw, the harder it was to simplify such complex issues into those kind of opinionated why-don"t-you-stop-wasting-your-money-on-booze? "solutions".

The more snapshots I got, the more my pride chipped away.

A teenage mom feeding her infant a bottle full of Coca Cola (no lie), for example. Or two high school aged kids making out on a subway while online slot maschinen their toddler tried to disembark without them noticing. (The heat of passion, you know.) Or a twenty-something transvestite in heavy makeup crying silently--tears draining the mascara down his face--on the bus ride home.

And somewhere along the way, I realized something.

The spent veteran and the mentally ill homeless woman were easy to judge because I saw them as adults. I saw them in a stage of life when society said they were supposed to be productive, working, maybe even saving to retire soon. And in that light, they seemed to be failing miserably.

I wasn"t, I realized, seeing them in the context of their lives. That forty or fifty years ago, they might"ve been the baby whose teenage mother nursed them on coca-cola, whose toddler selves wandered off subways and worse while their negligent parents ignored them, who vandalized out of boredom and experimented sexually and had no direction whatsoever. Who were raised struggling against the powerhouses of drugs and abuse, poverty and crime.

It occurred to me that maybe it reflected something amazing about these people that they had survived all that at all, that they had fought through the challenges life had brought them without giving up, that they were still trying to breathe and still in the hunt for something better.

I wonder now what it would"ve been like if I"d grown up the way many of these people did. It would be over-the-top arrogant, I understand, to try to claim I would still be a middle-class author with a Masters" degree. I wouldn"t. And I realize that if they had grown up like me, it would be very ignorant of me to assume they wouldn"t have accomplished all I have or maybe more.

These snapshots of grace helped me look for the grace-inspired double takes in life. To look back, a second time, and see the infant drinking coca-cola in every  panhandler.

[[Special Invite: When I came home from Chicago, I got the chance to help other people find similar snapshots in their own communities. We"ll be sharing some of these experimental activities for getting to know and responding to your community with families, small groups and churches who want to get to know the people groups in their local areas. If you"d like to receive information about these activities, free of charge, please go here for more information.]]