I was brought up in a very nice world. We lived in nice houses in nice neighborhoods. My parents always drove appropriately nice cars and we went to a nice church. When we traveled across town they were careful to drive around or up and over any neighborhoods that were not "nice" like ours. No one ever questioned this habitual tendency toward the nice... it is just the way it is done.
I am really not sure how they did it. Or maybe I did it to myself.
There is this capacity within me, maybe it is an addiction or maybe just an ignorance, but it allows me to dismiss people who are sitting right in front of me. Some people I simply dismiss their words, others I look right through.
There is a homeless couple that lives in my neighborhood. Their names are Richard and Rosemary. Everyday Richard pushes Rosemary in her war-machine wheelchair through the crosswalks before the glazed eyes of Sedans and SUVs. Then he ramps her onto the sidewalks on the other side. Like everybody else, I never saw them. If I dare to be honest, I fear that I can't see them.
It seems that I relegate the humans around me into two categories. Some people are characters in my play, a play about me. Others are simply props, no more significant than a vase or a lamp stand or a figure on the backdrop. Richard and Rosemary were worse; they are little more than rigging hidden behind the stage. No one sees the rigging; it is designed to be "unseen."
This middle-aged couple, these "neighbors," they live in a metal shed behind a dilapidated house. No water. No electricity. Just four rusted walls holding up the most minimal definition of a roof. They traveled to Portland from Florida on the promise of a job and a chance to start over. They spent every last penny to complete the trip. When they arrived the job was a lie. The owner of the tin shed knows that they could never afford first and last months' rent or a security deposit. At first the trash-surrounded shed was available for just forty dollars a week, but within a few weeks the price leaped to $20 a day. What choice do they have?
Richard works hard. He will give an afternoon's labor to anyone for $20. Rosemary is always with him. She is content to park in the shade of a neighboring tree and solve crossword puzzles while Richard works. They are clearly in love.
How did I come to "see" them? How did they move from the backstage of my playhouse to becoming an integrated character in my play? I assure you it comes from no virtue in me. It was my wife. She saw them. Then she met them. And in rapid succession she befriended them, listened to them, invited them over, exchanged phone numbers and made sure our children get the gift of knowing them.
Richard and Rosemary come by our house (or us by theirs) most every week. Two weeks ago Rosemary was in the hospital. She is slowly dying. We drove Richard to visit her and at the end of our visit we prayed together. Richard then turned to Rosemary and said, "I can't remember the last time we prayed with somebody else." I wanted to cry. I wanted to tell him they had given more to us than we could ever give to them, but I couldn't think how to say it without sounding condescending.
How does one heal from an addiction of selective sight? How does one stop dismissing anyone who is "other"? How can I grow to see every person as a potential friend or even my teacher?
After sharing about Richard and Rosemary, I was asked, "Well...? How does the story end? Is there a happy ending?"
The truth is, there may not be a happy ending, at least not a "nice" ending, if you know what I mean.
Richard and Rosemary were supposed to come to our house for dinner the Sunday before last. They never showed. We have not heard from them since. We are starting to fear we may never hear from them.
And the response of some might be, "What did you expect? This is what happens when you cast your pearls before swine."
Hogwash! They have missed the point completely. If they had only listened to my story, filled with my blindness and dismissals, turning people into props, they would know that these "neighbors" are not the swine... I am.
Richard and Rosemary generously gave their pearls to my wife, to my children and thankfully, to me... the last one to see.