Since coming to Spain, I have had the privilege of joining BocaTalk, a group who walks through Madrid every week to sit with people experiencing homelessness and listen to their stories. Before we leave, we make sandwiches together to give to the people we meet that evening. However, our motto is, “It’s so much more than a sandwich,” because the focus is on listening, not material goods given.
I have been both broken and blessed through this experience. I am thankful it has broken me, because I believe people must be broken before they can receive blessings humbly and give themselves to others wholeheartedly.
Last Wednesday started off with a blessing named Maria. I sat with her for a long time despite my inability to understand and to express what I wished to say to her well in Spanish. The language barrier is still really hard for me, but she didn’t seem to care. I think she told me her life story, but am honestly not sure. Whenever we didn’t have words, we just looked at each other. That was powerful to me.
Her gaze held no bitterness or resentment. I often resent myself for the privilege I have been given, and I felt that she was skeptical of my intentions, but appreciated me despite my brokenness. As a knelt on the ground beside her place of residence (a box she sat on) and all of her belongings (a small cart), she was worried for me. “Why are you on the ground? Don’t get your pants dirty! You don’t need to sit on the road.” Here she was, an old woman whom had experienced oppression and exclusion from society, worried about me, a privileged White American on a semester of vacation.
I told her I was so grateful for her words and thankful to have met her, she pointed at the sky and said “No, todas gracias a Dios.” All thanks to God. After that, I began to understand more of what she was trying to communicate to me. She told me of her Christian roots, how good the Lord was, and how He always heard our prayers. I wanted to pray for her, but she told me that prayer was for quiet, private places… not on the streets. There’s a verse in Matthew which says just that, and I was humbled by her wisdom and knowledge of scripture. Here she was, an old woman whom had been victim of abandonment and countless difficult circumstances, blessing me, loving me, and pointing me to Jesus with her steadfast faith and joy.
I left her later that evening, and continued on with our group throughout the center of Madrid. I struggled with my ability to walk away from Maria. She could not walk away from her circumstances, so why was I able to walk away from hers without a scratch? Privilege is a terrifying and convicting thing.
Little did I know what was in store for me the rest of the evening. Less than a half an hour later, I met the boy who bowed, and our encounter broke me.
We were wandering the side streets of Puerta del Sol, when we came upon a man whom was lying facedown on the street, holding a cup in his hand. We tapped his shoulder to ask him his name and offer him a bocadillo, expecting nothing out of the ordinary. I was shocked when a young, beautiful pair of brown eyes met mine. This child could not have been older than my little brother, and here he was, alone in the streets. We tried to talk with him, but realized that he could not speak English or Spanish.
We left him a sandwich and walked away, feeling like we had nothing else to offer him since we didn’t share a language. This young boy was alone in a foreign country where he could not be understood nor could he express himself to others.
I felt paralyzed.
I realized that we didn’t offer him a juice, so I grabbed one and ran back to him. I placed it in his hand, placed my hand on his shoulder, and merely looked into his eyes, hoping to communicate all I wanted to express to him through a look. Even if we had shared a language, words would not have been sufficient for this moment.
I left deeply disturbed and couldn’t hold back my tears.
WHY WAS I ABLE TO WALK AWAY? Why didn’t I sit with him longer? I should have stayed. Should have done something more. Should have bought him groceries for the week. Should have done anything to show him that he was loved and valued and worth it and not alone.
This experience has lead me to question the hip-evangelical-Christian subculture I immerse myself in at home. My love of bible verses in calligraphy, fancy dinner parties, hospitality, quiet times on perfect front porches, freshly picked wildflowers, acoustic music, hipster cafes, and organic food feels silly and superfluous when juxtaposed with Maria’s simple life. She loves the Lord with all she has, which is just herself. I have much to learn from Maria.
Do we hide behind the trappings of our Christian subculture? What does it mean to live courageously and walk through life with open hands? Faith requires surrendering all we are and have to the Lord in the knowledge that everything we have we have been freely given.
Luckily, the Lord does not need us. He has already won. It can be easy to feel guilty and helpless and be paralyzed by the brokenness and inequity in this world, but we serve a God whose light cannot be subdued by darkness. My prayer is for the Lord to take my guilt and helplessness and change it into a fire within me that pushes me to give of myself, my money, my time, and my privilege in radical, courageous ways. I know it is impossible on my own, but trust that the Lord is inviting me into His beautiful story of redemption and healing in every moment, I just need to learn to say yes to those invitations.
A good friend and I sat down for coffee yesterday, and I began to process this experience with him and my frustration with privilege and guilt for the joy I derive from traveling, good food, and other material comforts. He wisely reminded me that in order to give to others, we ourselves have to be filled up. The list of things I love that felt wrong and superfluous after talking to Maria are all things that remind me of deeper truths and allow me to savor life with others. Without those reminders and relationships, I would not be wholehearted enough to give away anything at all.
I hope to see the boy who bowed again, and hope to give more courageously to him next time. Not because it is required of me, but because the Lord is inviting me into the extravagant adventure of loving and caring for His children.