Street-level Encounters – a Parable

by | Nov 10, 2023 | Formation, Reflections

Do we look people in the eye?

We certainly look some people in the eye… especially when we are in a loving relationship with them.

But what about those we instinctively identify as “other” for whatever reason?

In this Vincentian Mindwalk, explore with me a street-level parable about the latest buzzword in many religious circles – “encounter.”

A parable of two traffic lights

I was waiting for the traffic light to change.  

Often, when I was still driving, I would see an obviously homeless veteran at a certain traffic light. I would studiously avoid eye contact with him. He had several days growth of beard and held a sign. “I’m homeless and hungry.” I felt no relationship with him.

A few blocks away, there was another traffic light. An elderly, somewhat disheveled woman would catch my eye. She frequently stood at this intersection holding a cardboard sign. “I’m hungry.” I began to take notice!”

Something about her reminded me of my mother. I frequently pulled over and gave her a few dollars. Eventually, I learned her name was Cathy. (My mother’s name is Alice).  As time passed, I found myself looking to see whether she was out when the weather was either particularly hot or cold.

Two traffic lights and two different reactions. At one, I avoid an encounter. At the other, I sought encounter.

Have you ever felt invisible?

Then I read how Making Eye Contact with the Homeless is important. The author asked me to imagine.

Imagine a day where none of your coworkers would look at you. Your family all ignored you when you tried to speak to them. Even strangers on the street went out of their way to avoid you.

How would that feel?

Now, imagine being passed by every day.

After a while, homeless people who are subjected to this treatment begin to feel as if they are ghosts watching the world but not able to participate in it fully. If they try to strike up a conversation, their words fall on deaf ears.

The “other” is dismissed, dehumanized, and invisible.

It’s much easier to just shut your eyes, close your ears, wall off your heart, and keep on driving by.

Pope Francis on Encounter

“Encounter” is one of Pope Francis’ favorite words, popping up often in his public addresses. He used it 32 times in his first apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel.

He talks about encounters as an antidote to our “throwaway culture.” People are seen as useless. They are cast aside because they are unborn, elderly, immigrants, the poor…  or even those who just think differently than we do.

Then I remember! “Whatever you do to the least of my sisters and brothers, you do to me!

Looking at “the other” as Christ, even badly disfigured, changes everything.

Believing we are brothers and sisters in Christ

“When did we see you hungry or thirsty… or badly disfigured…

I realized how often I turn away from that basic form of encounter of “seeing” another person as God’s son or daughter. When we begin to see a homeless person, or any “other,” as a sister or brother, it changes everything!

Vincent and indeed all our heroes in various branches of the Vincentian family “got it.”

So, the next time we see someone who is “other”  in our eyes, can we resist the urge to ignore them? Whenever possible can we at least make eye contact – encounter them? It’s quite literally the least we can do!

Jesus reminds us we are all his brothers and sisters!

  • Do we really believe Christ is the other, no matter how badly wounded and disfigured in our eyes?
  • Can we encounter and walk this Christ more often?

Originally posted on Vincentian Mindwalk