In a big city like D.C. where I spend much of my time, it’s not uncommon for someone who is homeless to stop you and ask for some help. It’s a little more unusual for someone to ask for something that doesn’t involve money.
A couple of weeks ago I was sitting outside a Starbucks at a round cafe table, making a quick list of notes before heading off to an evening meeting. A man with graying black hair, probably in his 60s, scuttled up to the table while I was deep in thought, dressed in a tattered ocean blue T-shirt and ragged khakis. I don’t know how long he was standing there before he politely cleared his throat to get my attention.
“I was wondering if you would be willing to buy me some dinner.”
I apologized that I had to leave in a few minutes and wouldn’t be able to go with him, but pulled out the five dollar bill in my wallet and handed it to him while asking his name.
“My name is John,” he replied. I introduced myself, told him it was a pleasure to make his acquaintance, and pretty much wished him good luck while subconsciously wishing him off.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw him fingering the bill in his hands while I pulled my mess of papers together and stuffed them in my bag.
“Excuse me,” John asked again.
I turned and looked at him expectantly.
“I was wondering if maybe you would give me a hug. I haven’t had one of those in a really long time.”
It was a strange moment, one I felt would look very odd to anyone peering down on us from nearby windows, but I stood up and gave that old man a hug. As soon as I did, I realized that I was hugging a person who was literally no more than skin and bones. I realized I had never hugged a pile of skin and bones before, and I wondered why.
John told me thank you, patted me on the shoulder in a grandfatherly sort of way, told me to “be good” and “stay safe on these streets,” and wandered back down the sidewalk.
Mother Teresa often said that the greatest poverty in this world is not a lack of resources, but the feeling of being unwanted. I can take your money, but I don’t really need it; God can provide money, she would tell visitors. But I would have you reach out and touch one of these dear ones and show them that they are wanted, that they mean something to you.
This understanding is one of the reasons Compassion’s relationship-based child sponsorship model is so powerful. Compassion links sponsors with children in a relationship so that sponsors can build up these little ones and, as so many of us sponsors have found over the years, the kids more than return the favor.
But regardless of our financial situation, each of us has the ability to make sure that those around us don’t experience the greatest poverty of all — the poverty of being unwanted.
Yes, kids that live in physical poverty need to be told time and again that they are loved and cherished. But the children we come in contact with each and every day, who live in our neighborhood, on our block, in our house, are just as susceptible to this deepest form of poverty.
I have good news for you, but it comes with a certain level of responsibility. It is fully within your power to change the world of a child and make it rich. You can be willing to walk slowly enough through this life that you will see the young ones who cross your path, and take the time that is necessary to let them know how important they are.
No child should live in poverty. No child should have to grow up to wander the streets and beg not only for money but for someone to tell them they are worth a hug. Whether they do or not is up to us.