I noticed them today – the people I brush aside in my conscience, the ones everyone else ignores or that I lump in with all the poverty in Beira. There’s nothing or little I can do, so it’s easier not to feel any compassion at all. Many foreign newcomers to Beira become overwhelmed by the signs of AIDS, of malnutrition, of infection and disease. I’ve seen third world poverty throughout my life, not on a consistent basis, but since I could toddle. Honestly, I find it easier to be compassionate for third world poverty from a distance, when all I can see is the poverty and sickness, when they are victims of a cruel world.
Up close it’s more difficult to feel compassion when I hear lies so they can get something out of me. Up close I keep a careful eye on my cell phone and wallet. Up close I know that they are not only victims of AIDS or abuse or corruption. They are also the spreaders, abusers, corrupters. I hear them call out, “Hey, baby” as I walk by. I smell the alcohol on their breath. I watch them urinate in public and throw trash on the ground. The poor and homeless in America are often blamed for their problems. The same people in Africa are romanticized. And they do deserve my compassion because they would have Jesus’ compassion regardless of their sin, in fact because of their sin.
I’m not a more compassionate person today, but I did notice some of them today.
The old man, hunched over walking along the side of the road this morning as I drove by in a chapa. He carried a full plastic bag and wore a navy blue jacket. The zipper must have been broken because he held it closed, tight around his neck. His hands were shaking as if the jacket was barely keeping him warm. It was at least 75 degrees out.
The young man in Café Bulha wearing a faded tee-shirt covered in holes across the shoulders, carrying a well-dressed toddler. To wear a shirt that worn through means that was his only shirt. He seemed so out of place in the café where I and the other patrons were munching on sandwiches and pastries that cost several times what he could buy a new tee-shirt for in the market. He must have been the toddler’s parents’ empregada (worker). I felt momentary guilt for the ease at which I can enter and indulge in an upper-class establishment. He seemed not to notice how out of place he looked, but instead was completely engaged in laughter with the child in his arms.
The dirty little boy on beggar’s bridge, who looked no more than four-years-old but could easily have been seven because of stunted growth due to malnutrition. He sat beside his dirty, blind mother and younger sibling but jumped up and smiled when he saw me and put out his hand, not out of any expectation that I would actually put anything in it, but simply out of habit when a white person walks by. He walked ahead of me with his hand still out, and smiled more widely when I put my hands up in a questioning gesture. He didn’t say anything, and he’ll smile at me again tomorrow when I walk across the bridge. Where is he sleeping right now as I type?
The barely-able-to-walk baby who was attempting to push a cart as his three-year-old brother pulled. It was not play but work. Some friends and I drove by and watched this scene on the side of a road. “Where are their parents?” one of us exclaimed. Much further away sat a woman selling bananas. We all hoped the children belonged to her.
Most days these scenes blend in with scenes of daily life in Beira. I no more notice them than I would a gas station attendant at Conoco or a runny-nosed first grader at Outley Elementary or a high panhandler who approaches me on Montrose. Perhaps I don’t notice them (either “them” here or “them” in Houston or elsewhere) because to really notice them would be to challenge how I view them, to confront my feelings of dismissal or apathy or disgust or judgment. And to begin to feel compassion for those that genuinely need it requires a subsequent act of compassion.