There is an energy that one can feel in most large downtown areas. I’ve spent time in Paris, Bangkok, Seattle, San Francisco, LA and Chicago, and in all of them, there is a palpable energy that permeates the streets, the buildings, the cars and the hearts that walk their streets. I was walking on the magnificent mile in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, and it very much reminded me of the Champs Elysees in Paris. The contrast between the opulent shops lining the streets and the beggars sleeping in their personal space, made theirs simply because they were sitting there, may be cliché but it is very real. The corporations paid millions to have their store there. The homeless just sat. Yet it took both of them to define the street. Neither was whole without the other.
I remember a young woman who was spending her Sunday afternoon providing nail painting for the women sitting on the sidewalk. Everyone else was just passing them by, but she was offering an indulgent personal service – holding their hand, allowing them to choose their color(s), touching each dirty, grizzled finger with loving care. It cost her little but her time, but it reminded me of the kind of service the savior might have offered. She, for that afternoon at least, was a true saint.
Last week, I was in Queretaro, Mexico, a colonial city about 100 km northwest of Mexico City. The city has grown from a modest 300,000 people to over a million in the last 10-15 years. The urban flight from Mexico City has landed in increasingly urban Queretaro. Walmart, Cinemark, McDonald’s and Subway were clearly visible from my hotel room at the Crown Plaza. Early in the morning, I could see people walking diligently to their work – probably preceding or following a long bus ride. Anecdotally, I learned it was not uncommon for people to travel 2 hours each way for a minimum wage job. Men stood by the side of the road with their wheel barrows advertising that they were ready to work. Others set up food stands near the streets leading to the industrial areas – cooking underneath plastic tarps or on the back of pickup trucks on camp stoves – but cooking nevertheless – cooking for customers who through some mysterious formula had clearly chosen between the six or eight portable cafes that lined the hundred yard stretch of highway. I saw buildings being constructed from scrap wood – when the 2×4’s weren’t long enough to make a complete stud, they were splinted together with short pieces. 4 x 8 plywood sheets were rare, so walls were fitted together from whatever scraps could be had. Even the plastic tarps that temporarily blocked the sun, wind and rain were tattered remnants of what once sat shiny and blue on the shelf of the local Walmart. These improvised buildings would never last 100 years, but they might last 10 or maybe 20 years, and they were a vast improvement over a tarp-fort or the back of a pick-up truck. In short, the citizens of Queretaro were admirably willing to do whatever they could to support themselves and their families. The people I met exuded a spirit of humble and gracious dignity. Life here somehow seemed more real. Freedom is cherished and maintained by hard work. In this culture, survival means sacrifice and patience, and the result was somehow beautiful.
Queretaro grows. New manufacturing, new buildings, new roads, and new commerce contrast sharply with the daily struggle of the majority of its residents – with those whose souls truly define the city. The downtown area, however, has retained its Colonial feel. The buildings are all 18 -19th century. The narrow streets convey a very European spirit. As in most predominantly Catholic cultures, one cannot help but admire the commitment and sacrifice of the people to build lavish cathedrals as a testament to their faith. Opulence for its own sake is largely hidden, if not absent. The lower middle class rules – culturally, if not financially. The people seem quite content, appropriately so in my opinion, to dine on tacos and gorditas dispensed from the tiny narrow storefronts that line the streets. Jeans and t-shirts dominate the fashion scene, even as the shops display sexy American-style outfits that nobody walking past could afford to buy, even if they wanted to.
I was there on October 31, the first night of the 3-day official “Night of the Dead” holiday. The streets and plazas were lined with booths selling jewelry, handbags, figurines, and food. The smells were intoxicating – meats and sauces and perfumes and leather; auto fumes and scented candles. The crowd moved respectfully among one another – neither too close nor too far. It was crowded, but not uncomfortable. A large police van sat on the corner, its lights annoyingly announcing its presence. It just sat there; and sat there; and sat there. Did I mention how annoying the flashing lights were? One street boasted a display of the traditional Day of the Dead altars, each sponsored by a local family or business – similar to the floats in our parades, except that these are stationary, and much more personal, even sacred. Some were graced with photographs of departed loved ones, while others were tended by lavishly costumed young women with artistically painted faces and head-dresses. The streets were crowded, the energy I spoke of before was strong, but this was somehow different. While the energy that I’ve experienced in other cities was stimulating, there was an edge to it. It was tense. In Queretaro, though, it was peaceful and respectful. The energy I felt there was soft, accepting, comforting. The spirit of downtown Queretaro was a reflection of the people who lived there. It was very nice.
But all of this is only to set the stage for my real story. As we were leaving the downtown area, having enjoyed a memorable evening walking the streets, listening to music, and dining on a patio, I felt something brush my leg and, looking down, saw a beautiful raven-haired 6-year-old with a small plastic jack-o-lantern in her hand. She looked up at me and said simply, “money?” I responded with a slight flick of the wrist, a shake of my head, and a dismissive “no”. I then moved on about my business…or so I thought.
The next morning, as I was praying, this seemingly inconsequential incident came into my mind. I realized that, by dismissing that girl’s entreaty, I had passed up an opportunity to change her life. As I put myself in her place, the spirit taught me of a child who was probably encouraged by her parents or some other role model to go out and beg for money. She had probably been rejected by 95% of the people she approached and had surely grown used to such rejection. I had no doubt reinforced the image of grownups as callous and uncaring – far too busy with their own lives to pay any attention to a bothersome little child. Even worse, I probably reinforced her image of herself as inconsequential and unworthy of the attention – a gnat, if you will – someone to be swatted away as undeserving of even the slightest eye-contact.
Am I being too hard on myself? It’s certainly easy to justify my actions. She was likely a budding beggar, similar to the Roma in Europe, helping her parents make a living off of others while learning a way of life that rewards dishonesty, fraud and deceit. Still I wondered – what if I had handled the situation differently? What if, instead of brushing her off, I had knelt down and told her that I didn’t have any money, but that I had a different kind of gift for her? What if I had smiled brightly and told her that she was beautiful and precious – the daughter of a God who loved her very much? What if I had thanked her for brightening my day? Is it possible that such an encounter, so much in contrast to every other experience she had that night, or any other night for that matter, might have stood out in her mind? Is it possible, then, that maybe just having someone tell her that she was precious might change just a little bit the way she thought of herself and of others?
Of course, this story isn’t really about a little raven-haired Mexican beauty at all. It’s about me, and it’s about you. It’s about how we get caught up so easily in our own world that we forget to extend even the simplest kindness to others. If we had time to think – if the scenario were to be played out before hand, and we were given the option of the two reactions, we would surely choose the second, wouldn’t we? But that’s not the way life happens. No, we need to change ourselves so that we choose the kinder, gentler, more Christ-like option first. We need to become someone who recognizes the beauty and value in each person we meet – especially those who are asking for our help, regardless of how sincere they are. This is charity. I discovered that night in Queretaro, Mexico that I am far from that kind of person. That discovery made me cry just a little. Not a lot – just a little; just a little in my heart, but not openly. Heaven forbid I should cry openly.
The person who rebuffed that little girl is not the person I want to be. No, I want to shine! I want to shine with the light of Christ so that every person I meet is brightened by my presence and lifted by His love. This is not a matter of ego – it’s a matter of knowing the power of the love of Christ. If I had it to do over again, I would have knelt and told that little girl how precious she was; but that simply won’t happen. In lieu of that opportunity, I pray to the Lord that He will help me change my heart so that I will be more generous and loving the next time. I pray to the Lord that the image of that little raven-haired Mexican beauty will come to mind – even haunt me – every time someone approaches me asking for help of some kind. I may have missed the opportunity to change her life, but I pray that it’s not too late for her to change mine.
The other day, I was in a parking lot and an obviously homeless man passed by. He didn’t ask for anything. I turned around and called to him. I gave him a $10 bill, touched his bearded cheek with my hand, looked him in the eye and said, “God bless you”. It made me feel better. It’s a start…only a start.