Last Wednesday an older homeless man with a ratty backpack and nondescript roller bag sank into a seat at the Homeless Connect event, smiled broadly at me as I handed him his chicken/bacon wrap sandwich with water, and said: “So grateful … thank you so much,” and with a flourish, he proclaimed: “Merry Christmas!” I felt my heart getting warmer inside my chest and I smiled back and said,”Merry Christmas to you too!”
How much we all need to be witnessed and smiled at, I thought.
There were masses of homeless humanity at the Bill Graham auditorium last Wednesday, all there to partake of various services, from dental exams and HIV tests, to applications for ID cards, massages and food baths, housing referrals, and in the end a big bag of groceries to take away. Young volunteers in dark blue t-shirts bustled about with smiles on their faces, as the men and women from the streets marched in, leading their dogs in ratty sweaters, cradling inscrutable cats, or shepherding their loved ones in wheelchairs. Outside San Francisco was shivering in damp grayness, but in here under the bright fluorescent lights, it was warm and perky volunteers of all ages waited on tables for the homeless. I spent many hours offering greetings and food and I never got tired.
We were all coming together in a climate of civility and kindness. The legions of homeless that populate this city’s streets brought their fatigue, hunger, and their gratitude into the space and we took care of them. And I kept thinking, this is who people really are — kindred, generous, and present. But I had forgotten that for the most part as we slogged through the presidential campaign of 2016, with the lies and hatred enveloping us and making us afraid. I forgot that “good will toward men,” that familiar refrain from an old Christmas carol, is actually quite normal. People gobbled up all the sandwiches we brought them, leaving behind the bags of tiny carrots, and then some lay their heads down on the table for rest. Yes. I understood. For now they were safe and warm and not hungry any more…
My Buddhist teacher said more than once that the practicing generosity allows those who give to be recipients of great gifts themselves, like gratitude. It creates a web of kindness and regard that is not only safe, but characterized by happiness. The ragged, shuffling, smelly people of the streets kept coming that day, and gave those of us who live in comfortable heated houses and have family and cars and jobs an opportunity to feel connected to our fellow beings. And to feel moments of joy.
This afternoon filled with funky goodwill reminded me to stop whining about not getting my way politically and to hit the streets and reach out to the people society has turned its back on, to offer food or conversation and affirm that we are one. This is how we all move forward … together.