Lucas Sánchez is a young scientist and writer who recently shared on his Twitter account a personal experience he lived while riding the subway in Madrid:
While riding on the subway in Madrid, I just experienced one of the most beautiful and intense moments of my seventeen years in Madrid.
I was traveling home from a concert when a drug addict boarded the train. I continued to enjoy my concert experience by listening (with my earphones) anew to the music from the concert. The drug addict began to cry. I was surprised by the situation and I took off my earphones in an attempt to discover what was happening.
The drug addict was crying because a Moroccan boy, who was also in the same subway car, told him to cheer up. That his situation could be changed and overcome … but he had to fight.
The Moroccan boy hugged the junkie, sat down beside him, and encouraged him. The junkie kept crying and got up. Before the next stop, the Moroccan took out his wallet and gave him € 10. The junkie collapsed again, crying, grabbed the money, gave him a hug and left.
It seems that nobody had ever given him so much affection or spoken so kindly to him … the money was just an additional gift. As the train continued to move, the young Moroccan, with watery eyes, remained on the verge of tears.
I was amazed and I was also totally paralyzed. After some reflection I told the Moroccan man that his gesture was one of the most human acts that i had seen in my seventeen years traveling on the subway. He told me he has been in the same situation as the drug addict. Today, however, with the help of others, he is married and has a job and no longer finds himself sleeping on the street.
He knew that it was most probable that the 10 € would be spent on drugs … but maybe not. Regardless, someone had to help the addict and helping others is something that God always rewards. People had helped him and now it was his turn to do the same. Again the Moroccan repeated that perhaps he had not helped at all and that his gift would be spent on drugs … but he did what he felt had to be done.
I had a € 20 bill in my wallet and offered it to him. He did not want to take it. I told him that I wished I had given it to the other young man, but that at least this small gift should be seen as my own way of say thanks for the help that he had extended to another person who was suffering. He told me he did not want it. I insisted until he took it. He told me that everything was okay, and asked if he could give me a hug. We hugged. I exited the train but stayed on the platform… stunned, excited … and I still feel the same way.
We say many things about people from a culture that is different from ours, but I had just witnessed a “foreigner” giving money to a “stranger,” comforting and encouraging that individual. This foreigner was able to identify with the situation of that stranger and did not hesitate to reach out to someone on the “periphery” … a gesture of true human solidarity.
Lucas concluded his story with the following reflection:
We usually give what is superfluous, what is left over. Maybe we feel better about ourselves when we act in that manner … but I just experienced a young man giving to another and doing so from his own poverty.
When I read this story, the wonderful words of Frederic Ozanam came to my mind: “nobody helps the poor better than the poor themselves” (in the article “To good people,” published in the newspaper l’Ère nouvelle, on September 15, 1848). There, Frederic urged all social classes to help the poor and needy of the city of Paris. Frederic’s words are intimately bound up with the process of systemic change: changing those structures that create poverty, empowering the victims of poverty thus making the poor protagonists of their development. Once again we see that Frederic Ozanam was ahead of his time.
Kathleen O’Meara, in her biography of Ozanam, describes the founding of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and states:
Much of the misery of the poor often proceeds from their not knowing how to help themselves out of a difficulty once they have gotten into it; they fall into distress through accidental circumstances, arising from their own fault or other people’s, and they are too ignorant to see their way out of it. The law frequently has a remedy ready for them, but they don’t know this, and there is no one to tell them. Their one idea when they fall into distress is to hold out their hand for an alms, a system which generally proves as ineffectual as it is demoralizing. M. Bailly suggested to his young friends that they should try to remedy this lamentable state of things by placing their education, their intelligence, their special knowledge of law or science, and their general knowledge of life, at the service of the poor; that instead of bringing them some little material relief, they should strive to win their confidence, learn all about their affairs, and then see how they could best help them to help themselves. “Most of you are studying to be lawyers,” he said, “some to be doctors, etc.: go and help the poor, each in your special way; let your studies be of use to others as well as to yourselves; it is a good and easy way of beginning your ministry as Christians in the world.”
(Kathleen O’Meara, Frederic Ozanam, professor at the Sorbonne; his life and works, chapter VII).
What can we learn from Lucas’ experience while riding the subway? Perhaps the first and most important lesson is that there are always reasons for hope, and that people are good and supportive of others. Second, regardless of people’s situation, every person enjoys a God-given dignity and when we reach out to others, we affirm that dignity. Finally, our personal situation, how much or how little we have, is not really important … we can always act in ways that will transform situations of poverty or injustice. The first step, however, is to approach poverty with open hands and a willing heart.