urban street

Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Sometimes it’s better to address your own despair before addressing the despair in the world. By doing this you will change the world from the inside out. Start by asking the question, “Where is love?” Photographer Rick Ruggles has snapped thousands of love hearts that he found in natural settings, whether in a puddle, a cloud or a piece of rusty metal. In our home, we have a beautiful Ruggles poster above our kitchen table with the words “Love is where you find it.” It’s a constant reminder to find love wherever we are. Of course it’s not always easy to find love. One day my seven year old daughter was feeling very hard done by. She was having a mini tantrum and blurted out, “Love is NOT where you find it.” I had to hold back my giggles. This was no laughing matter to her. It was a raw expression of being misunderstood. She had reminded me that just as love hearts can be found in the most basic materials, so love is manifest in the most fundamental of human experiences including despair.

This is what happened when I came face to face with poverty. I was raised in a very stable middle-class family, but my parents encouraged me to mix widely. So in my childhood I was friends with a lot of poor people. I grew up in Sydney, went to an inner urban school, and mixed in some very poor and unstable families. It was not uncommon for me to be in homes where 15 year olds raised younger siblings because one parent was in prison and the other parent worked 3 jobs. Poverty was a reality for me, but it was only when I was 19 that I came close enough to poverty that I saw myself as part of the solution. It was a relationship that turned my world upside down and inside out. It gave me a new sense of what it meant to truly engage poverty rather than just feel bad about it.

My first two church jobs involved working with young people. The first was as a youth worker in a middle-class suburban parish, and the second was as a youth worker on inner city streets in Sydney. So for two years I ran youth groups in the suburbs, and mixed with middle class families. I spent time in their homes, getting to know what appeared to be some very stable middle-class families. Little did I know what lay beneath the surface in some of these homes. Then I moved into street work, and it was not uncommon for me to be walking down the main drag of King’s Cross in Sydney and see a line of young kids, hands outstretched, each of them asking for money.

On one particular morning I was walking quickly and except for a slight glance to the left I would not have noticed one particular boy with his hands outstretched. Along this line of 12 and 13 year-old kids, I looked over and saw one of the same kids who had been in my suburban youth group. It had only been three months since I had been in his home talking to his parents and it was only months since we were ten pin bowling and playing chubby bunnies in the youth group. And yet, here was this young kid begging on the street. When our eyes met there was a brief moment of recognition, and I saw on his face all the poverty and sadness in the world. He looked so innocent and lost. I saw every teenage boy that I’d ever met. I saw myself as a teenager. I saw into the future to my own children. I saw every teenage boy in the world.

I saw him from time to time over the next few months and like so many who live that way, he aged several years for every week he lived on the street. He spiraled from broken to desperate within months. When I glanced into his eyes that first time, I learned something very profound about myself and about life. I learned that as long as he was suffering, I was suffering. As long as there’s one person in poverty, we’re all in poverty, and that situation is unacceptable. It is a profound spiritual truth that Jesus pointed to when he said that showing compassion to the most desperate was a way of showing compassion to him.  Jesus was urging those who followed his path to see their engagement with poverty as a spiritual activity from the inside out.

Compassion begins within. It begins as self awareness and inner acceptance. Sometimes that involves facing up to the difficult parts of who you are. In C. S. Lewis’s retelling of the story of Cupid and Psyche, the dying Queen comes to the profound realization that she had to see her own face clearly in the mirror before she could look at her sister Psyche with compassion. She realized that her envy of her sister’s beauty was not the real problem. She had to grow to love her own face first. Then she could see her sister’s face without bitterness. She also no longer needed the gods in the temples to have faces. Where before she needed the gods to have faces to prove to her that love was present, now seeing her own face and seeing her sister’s face was sufficient reminder that love IS where you find it.

Seed of Compassion
A person full of compassion dwells in a world full of compassion. Everyone you meet is a mirror, reflecting your inner world. You are a mirror for everyone you meet, reflecting light and love. Choose compassion today, and be part of the healing of the world.

Say to yourself: I radiate love and light to all.

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