Today riding the train I had two encounters with homeless men. Initially as I switched lines, I avoided getting on the same train as a man in overalls and open winter coat who had a stench about him. Others were not so lucky and by the first stop people were coming from that car one in front of the one I got on, some coming through the emergency doors that lead between the trains, others using the main doors. As the train came to knew stations more people left the car in front of the one I was on and came to this one.
while this was happening a second homeless man came through the car asking for money. He did it quietly but insistently not waiting for people to notice but asking each person on the train. Most even when answering or giving him money would not look at him. I watched him and he saw that I was watching. Then he came to the seats in front of where I was sitting and asked a woman and she told him that he was not allowed to ask the costumers of the CTA on the Train for money, that it was illegal. (to be clear she was not white and was of the same minority group as the homeless person, I mention this only because some may think such a comment might only come from a white person.) He for a moment stared back at her, and then laughed, and said in a gravely almost unintelligible voice "The CTA." and he began to stomp, I looked him in the eye, and nodded. Violence flashed through his eyes and seemed to ripple through is body as he stared back at me I briefly dropped eye contact and then looked back and smiled, the violence left him and he looked back into my eyes, and then sheilded his face. I dropped my eyes again and then looked at him again, and the same gesture. this happened one more time and then unsure what exactly was going on and unsure even what I thought I was doing I looked away, partially sensing that if I insisted on looking at him in the eyes again that the violence I had seen would return (this may have been simple fear, with little or no warrant), but he seemed to deflate, did not ask me for money and simply sat down in the seat in front of me. Only asking one other person for money after that. So conflicted, what was I to do, what was the appropriate response, what change in the system would right this. Most people didn't really see him, I attempted to see him and yet, could not tell you what he needed, and no one treated him as a human being like they, even I in struggling with this fell short, for I could not meet him where he was, wasn't really desiring to either.
A stop or two after the man sat down. some more people scampered in clearly from the preceding train. And as the doors close the conductor says over the loud speaker "Ya, I know why you are leaving that car. I understand..", and he laughed, and all of us in the car laughed. As I was laughing, and as the conductor made some further comment about the stench that must be on that other car, I thought how cruel.
I thought it was cruel and yet even before realizing it I had entered this small cruelty. This cruelty was simply in the air, and in each and everyone on that train. It was in us and what we breathed and we all inhaled it and it touched something in us and we all laughed as one. I was shaken, this was evil and injustice. in small almost unnoticeable granular form, yet there, almost unnoticeable, and if noticed easily explained away. And yet there we all admitted that the one on the other car was less than us, less than human, he was not our neighbor. Even I who moments before was trying to through even a small gesture trying to find a way to be neighbor to one man, in a split moment took part in the dehumanizing of another person.
what is needed, it seems to me if we are to address, truly address injustice is more than railing about institutions, and structures, and seeking laws, no we must also be willing to see the small cruelties in ourselves, those most of us rarely notice or rarely are willing to look at especially as we try to be "good people." Good people averted their eyes, good people today laughed and dehumanized another person, I a good person took part in all of this. Even worse I who proclaim the Gospel each Sunday, I baptized in to Christ, an servant of Jesus Christ, without realizing it laughed with everyone. We are too optimistic about our ability to change the world until we recognize that evil and injstice are in these small unnoticeable cruelties in the air and that lurke in side us.