[My Introductory Note] This is dedicated to all of you out there who think that political conservatives and Republicans raise their children to be heartless, callous, bigoted human beings, who care nothing about the less fortunate.
This essay was for Michael’s English class, in his first semester of college. Now you can see why we’re so extremely proud of him: as we are, all four of our children. He’s a brilliant writer (already has written a book along the lines of Lord of the Rings and scored 98% for writing / English on a placement test at college), and what he writes about is a wonderful expression of Christian charity and self-reflection of his life growing up, and subsequent social (and moral) development. Excellent job, son!
I think the essay also annihilates two commonly held myths or false perceptions: that homeschooled kids lack socialization, and that conservatives lack compassion or a social conscience. Michael found it difficult to “step out” at first, but so do most kids (in other words, that is not a function or result merely of being homeschooled). I was at least as shy growing up, and had far less socialization in Detroit Public Schools. A good Catholic or otherwise Christian youth group is a tremendous blessing. I met my wife in a great single young adults group at an Assemblies of God church, in 1982. As it turned out, Michael met his future wife at a Catholic high school youth group, too.
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Some things in life come easily, while others take time and effort to obtain. Some people naturally exhibit compassion, wisdom, understanding, or empathy, while others develop it over time. Some never find these gifts at all. It may take a defining moment or a grand revelation before the gift presents itself, or it may sneak into the picture. Extravagance does not need to play a part in the development of these gifts. Sometimes the simplest things in life can make the most difference in a person. This story will illustrate that lesson.
I was born in Detroit, and lived there for the first six years of my life in a relatively quiet neighborhood, sheltered from the violence and reputation that a once great city has garnered. It did not occur to me at the time that the people there struggled daily for simple necessities. Young and care-free, I simply did not see the poverty and needs of these people right beneath my very eyes.
Years went on and my family moved out of Detroit to my current city, Melvindale. At the time of our departure, our neighborhood began to quickly deteriorate. Crime rates sprang to new heights, our neighbor stole a car, and more and more houses were decorated with boarded-up windows. My experience with that city, however, had only just begun.
Growing up meant my awareness of my surroundings also went up. I heard stories of brutality and gang violence, but could never picture my neighborhood being that way. It was where I grew up, and the shield placed around me never let me see the city’s true colors. Still, being young, I did not believe I could do anything to help or prevent these terrible things from happening, so I remained idle.
Middle school approached, and the thought of making friends scared me. Interaction with the outside world up to that point had been very little, so I did not know how or who to make friends with. A whole new world of danger, fear, and unknowing beckoned me to join in, but I could not open my arms to it just yet. My mother encouraged me to join groups or sports teams, and I decided to give them a try, one by one. Baseball was always a love of mine, so I began with that and played two years of CYO baseball at two different churches. It still did not break my shell, but the ball began to roll.
Another suggestion I received from friends and family alike was to join a youth group. A local church started one up and eagerly pursued anyone of middle school age to join. I wanted to join, but I did not know anyone there, and that fear and unknowing crept back into my mind and almost made me drop the idea altogether. In the end, I gave myself one shot. If it did not work out the first time, I would not go back and I would go without. Needless to say, it worked out better than I ever expected.
Sacred Heart’s youth group, known as J.A.M.S (Jesus and Middle Schoolers), started a long relationship with youth ministry and work with children. Youth meetings were held every week with a topic that we all discussed in creative and fun ways. It built camaraderie and strong friendships between all of us, friendships I still treasure. We also did a lot of community service: helping the elderly, visiting the sick, fundraising for the poor, and clothing drives for the homeless.
These projects helped out immensely, but a yearning still remained to do more. All of these directly helped people, but I could not see for myself the impact they made on each individual. How could I truly know how special these blankets or these donations were if I could not see the people receiving them? A large part of me wanted to go to these people and see them for myself, and experience exactly what they were going through and how exactly my efforts made an impact.
A common perception of homeless people is that they are low-lifes who never bothered to educate themselves, who could not get a job if they tried, who lie and cheat and steal for food, and are the scum of the earth. Though never truly agreeing with these opinions, I could not help but wonder why so many people put the homeless in that small, stereotyped box. Yes, I believed that many of them were uneducated, but was that really their fault? Sure, maybe their job qualifications could use some work, but was that their fault? Would I lie and cheat and steal if I walked in their shoes?
Our youth group arrived on the Detroit street corner, ready to make a difference not only in the community, but in the people themselves. Admittedly, I shook with fear as I stepped out of the car. I stood in Detroit, and I knew now just what that meant. I took my place in with a bitter, icy wind striking my face from all angles. A man stood in front of me and told the group what we would be doing. Everyone stood before a station, a different food item or necessity to hand out at each one. The man directed me to the hot dog station and told me to present each person with one, or two if they asked.
The first homeless man came up to me and I placed the hot dog in his bag for him to take home–if he had a home. Observing the man, I saw a stubbly beard growing and unkempt hair upon his head. His clothes did not look very warm, and visible holes poked through his shoes. He smiled as widely as he could and said, “Thank you, and God bless you.”
Like a hammer to the skull, I found myself rendered speechless and incoherent. Something inside of me clicked. A switch, hidden away in the corner, flipped itself on and suddenly things became much clearer to me. A brain once filled with empty thoughts and obliviousness now spread wings of understanding and compassion. Pinpointing exactly what caused it would prove impossible, but I believe many things contributed to that sudden revelation.
This man wore barely enough clothes to keep him warm in the bitter Michigan days and nights, he did not own a house, no bed other than the unforgiving concrete below his feet waited for him, and his feet the only choice of transportation. Yet, when I gave him a hot dog, just one hot dog, he smiled and thanked me with more joy and gratitude than I can ever remember seeing from anyone. However, the magic did not just stop there. Every man, woman, and child that came up to me that day possessed the same attitude. They knew their situation could improve, but they took what they had and made something out of it. They could have easily been resentful and spiteful about how much better off the rest of us were, but with every ounce of their being, they thanked us as genuinely and as sincerely as one could.
That day will forever be burned into my mind as a constant reminder of all the good things each and every one of us possesses, even if we can not see them for ourselves. All I own and all the skills and talents I possess are a gift, truly a wondrous and glorious gift that should not be taken for granted. Deep down, I found compassion, love, understanding, empathy, sorrow, and happiness; hidden away for a time, but upon awakening, they blossomed. From that day onward, I look at myself in the mirror every morning and know that I am a changed man forever, and I owe it all to that one homeless man. Every day I can hear him speak. “Thank you, and God bless you.”
(originally 9-10-12; my introductory note added on 7-2-16)
Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Dave Kaylor. Boston (Feb. 2, 2007) – Sailors assigned to guided missile destroyer USS Mahan (DDG 72) serve lunch to homeless veterans at the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans. [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]