What it means to be human

Under the bridge, right next to Class of 1920 Commons dining hall where plates of untouched food are being thrown away, there is a shivering man laying on a sewer grate trying to catch some of the hot steam; in the middle of bustling restaurants where college students gather and socialize, there is a lonely lady sitting on cardboard with an empty cup getting glares from passers-by. 

I was that girl who did all that she could, pepper spray in reach, to avoid eye contact with the individual sitting on the ground with rags as clothes. I grew up being told over and over that I must stay away from all the dangerous, lurking eyes on the streets. However, this past year as my faith grew and God challenged me to love everyone (James 2:1-6, 1 John 3:11), this embedded message faded only into a faint imprint to keep me safe. Despite living comfortably in the Penn bubble and being unaware of the reality outside of my friends and my studies, my heart ached at the juxtaposition of those who had nearly nothing against the backdrop of those—me included—who had so much more. I imagined myself on the side of the road, asking those walking by me for help or just a drink of water, but only getting ignored—not even that, being treated like air. 

How painful must it be for someone to be disregarded, to be denied the reciprocity of attention that’s witnessed everywhere else around? It is dehumanizing.

As humans, we have the innate inclination to connect and socialize with those around us. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—which can be visualized as a pyramid—describes how, at the bottom, physiological needs and safety concerns must be met before advancing to the tiers of love and belonging with the end goal of reaching self-actualization at the top. Maslow points to the latter three tiers as psychological needs, which drive human behavior and help avoid loneliness and depression, as we not only desire to understand ourselves but also those around us. However, the homeless, seen as members of an outgroup—dirty, defiled, immoral—are fighting to be recognized as people who have psychological needs as well. Although many of us may never come close to privation, we have blinded ourselves from truly understanding this community. We grow up stereotyping and reacting with feelings of helplessness or disgust, but I believe that robbing someone of the same opportunity of respectful interaction is a shame to us as human beings. 

Last semester, I used to scowl at the inconvenience of crossing the street to avoid a homeless person idling on the sidewalk. Finally, I decided to do something else about it, because I could not bring myself to continue to react so dismissively without guilt (Philippians 2:3-4). I joined the Penn Newman Center Christ in the City program, where college students go out to the streets to meet the homeless and “spend time with them in conversation, get to know them, and love them simply for who they are.” 

I met a man who was homeless for fifteen years due to a nasty divorce. He had children and a wife. Another was a sixty-five-year-old who had been on the streets for seven years because of a medical bill that led to a catastrophic spiral. I learned how many people ended up on the streets in complex ways. However, more important than their various circumstances, I learned about the people themselves: their dreams, their personalities, their passions. I heard the story of a young boy who played in a band with his friends practicing in the garage, and another who, if he could have any superpower, wanted to fly. 

They would be surprised when we sat down on the ground and stayed with them after they asked if we had somewhere else we needed to go. We wanted to learn their names, get to know them, and pray for them. Out of privacy and respect, all the names I reference here are pseudonyms. One man, Brian, thanked us for the little physical things—a banana, water, and a new jacket—we were able to provide him. However, he specifically noted, “Thank you for just talking with me. I haven’t had a normal conversation in a long time. Thank you for your time. It feels good to just chat and share what I want to share.” Maslow’s Hierarchy states that one feels the urge to achieve physical needs before continuing to psychological needs; yet, Brian desired so much more for a conversation than a banana to satisfy his hunger. 

This is because social poverty—being unheard and unloved—is far more difficult to remedy than physical destitution. It’s easy to give some change or snacks then walk away and call it charity, but I know that the ziploc bag—containing a water bottle and granola bar—I now keep in my backpack offers a start to a warm conversation where a stranger and I might get to know each other and help share at least a percentage of the social interaction and love we both yearn for. 

All of us wish to be validated and supported in our journeys. As I learned about the life-long consequences of childhood trauma and abuse through my research and classes, I forced myself out of the utopia I created to shelter my younger mind. Although I cannot say I am as close to the homeless as I am to my roommate, I learned that everyone desires for their stories to be heard and for voices to fight for them. We are curious creatures longing to interact with each other, and it is hard to keep our ever-growing and never-ending stories to ourselves.

I met Will pacing around trash cans to find a drink of water. Our conversation veered into the topic of religion when he stared into my eyes and asked, “How can God be good if there’s so much suffering? The devil rules this world.” He was expecting an answer, but I could only reply with silence. I didn’t know what to say; I didn’t think any answer I could give would be sufficient. 

Will’s words echoed in my mind, and I questioned, “What is the point of telling a homeless person, ‘Hey, God loves you?’ It is a sick irony. How could a loving God permit this suffering?”

Then I met John. In the midst of our small talk, he randomly interjected that he was a man of prayer and with somber eyes and a soft voice said, “I would not be able to survive on these streets without God.” He found his belongingness in his faith, unlike his estranged family. My eyes averted his gaze as I shivered from hearing the simplicity of those words and the hope he was able to give to someone like me. Again, I was at a loss for words.

Yet, I realized that however eloquent or rambly my response would have been, Will wasn’t really looking for a theology lesson. He was living with a hole that John had found how to fill. John knew Jesus.

Interacting with people like Brian, Will, and John opened my eyes to both the physical and spiritual needs of our brothers and sisters in Philadelphia. Most of our conversations with Christ in the City do not end with explicit gospel preaching, but we always carry in our hearts the desire to reflect Christ in our actions and words big and small. We are each made by the hands of God and are all loved by Him, and sadly, it’s harder for some others to feel that love.

You see, what was clearer than ever was the new recognition of how both men on the streets reflect the human struggle that we all know. They carry with them the questions of life and the agony of uncertainty. When I once used to beg the question of what I could give to help them, I now wonder what more I can learn from them. The stories I hear from my friends represent only a minuscule perspective of the world around me, yet shared humanity is a kind of gift we often don’t think about when we walk by a person laying on the street. Still, their raw honesty and openness about their outlook on the world display disarming courage that I wish I found more in the average person around me. 

Innately, we are each seeking meaning that cannot be discovered individually, because our need for love and belongingness is what ultimately makes us all human. How can we walk in the fullness of our purpose without pausing to exchange treasures with those who need much, but have surprisingly more to share?

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