To be seen and known, to matter to someone else—this is one of our deepest universal human desires. The heartbreaking opposite is to be invisible—to have others look right through you as if you are a part of the sidewalk. When others don’t see you, you start to lose yourself; you disappear little by little…
It’s mid-evening, and the Richmond sidewalks are a mess of melting spring-snow; damp air and drizzle sting my face. I notice a man a little ways ahead, in the shadows of a store front; he’s agitated, his posture tense, his voice loud. Soon, I can see his disheveled dark hair and scars on his cheek. It’s Freddy, a man I’ve come to know during many walks downtown, where he sits on the sidewalk day after day, ready to talk with anyone who will listen.
I’ve never seen Freddy so upset before. When I pause and say hello, he seems surprised and relieved to see me, and before long, the hurts of his day pour out, his words tumbling faster than I can catch them. He tells me how a couple of people walking by that day said unkind things to him and judged him; but worse, he explains, were all the people who pretended they didn’t see him and said nothing at all…
“I’m a nice guy! I’m a nice guy, and I say nice things. Even the police know I’m nice, and they leave me alone, because they know I don’t cause trouble, don’t hurt no one. But the people who walk by me… they judge me! They say mean things, or lift their noses at me. But the worst is when they ignore me. I say hello and they walk right by, like I’m not even here… Why won’t they talk to me? Why am I invisible?”
The truth in his words overwhelms me. He tells me even his family won’t have contact with him. “No one in my family calls me when someone dies. When my aunt died, no one even told me.” To feel invisible is an unbearable loneliness. “Someday I’ll die on the street, and nobody will even know.”
I wish more people knew Freddy. For me, he’s always been welcoming and kind, inviting me into conversation, remembering my name, and making me feel at home. He tells me about his family, his sons, his life regrets and hurts. I’m blessed by his trust and openness. It seems easy now, to stop and talk, but I’m aware there was a time when it wouldn’t have been as easy, when I didn’t yet know the beautiful ways that God would reach me and love me through someone like him.
My story in learning about homelessness and poverty goes back a few years. I was new in London and attending Western, when I first began hearing confusing advice from well-meaning people: ‘don’t go downtown. Maybe go as far as Richmond Row, but not all the way to Dundas.’ They advised it wasn’t safe, I wouldn’t like it, the people there were ‘different’… I know they were trying to help. Truth was, some of them didn’t seem to even know why there were telling me—it was a message passed on from person to person. A never-ending cycle of fear perpetuated by lack of understanding.
Thankfully, I ended up exactly where they told me not to go… living out community in the downtown. Thankfully I became involved with Sanctuary London, where I began to meet many people at street-level… some of the most warm-hearted and caring people I’ve ever met. During my walks downtown, I started to chat with Freddy and others in his shoes—I started to really see them in new ways.
Someone who doesn’t know Freddy might have misunderstood his frustration that night as unkind or unsafe, and avoided him. But the very reason for his anger and hurt was that no one knew him—no one cared… the chaos in his heart was born of a deep longing for human connection.
How do we get there, I wonder? How do we stop closing our eyes and pretending the hurt right in front of us doesn’t exist? How do we treat those we meet on the streets like they matter, as God’s sons and daughters, as his beloved? How do we follow God in loving those we are afraid to love? Often it’s through these very friendships that he gives us eyes to see, eyes to behold his glory. And as we see the ‘other’ with love, we also receive the eyes to see ourselves with love, and the deeper knowing that we too are God’s beloved.