PERSPECTIVE: Lack of instant results does not mean failure

“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business,” T.S. Eliot says in his final masterpiece, Four Quartets.

I often am reminded of this reality during my weekly trips with YACHT into Philadelphia, and especially during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness week, which focuses on all levels of poverty in the world. In the past two and a half years, I have fallen in love with Philly, and I owe this in part to the homeless people I have met. They affected me so much that I decided to live in West Philly this past summer, and I would love to live in the city after I graduate; moreover, I have developed two important relationships in this time.

One is with an older man named Pop, who stands on the spiral steps under the clothespin statue in Center City. “My name’s Pop,” he always says when he introduces himself. “Backwards P-O-P, sideways O-P-P.” He loves to drink Mountain Dew (in the summer) and tea (in the winter).

Not exactly homeless, he rents out the basement of a friend’s house for about five dollars a night. During the day, he stands with a cup, asking for money. When it rains, he sells umbrellas to people who have gotten caught in the storm.

I have known Pop for about a year. In that time, I have hung out with him, bought him Coolattas from the Dunkin Donuts in Suburban Station, given him lunches and talked to him about everything from sports to weather to politics to the pigeons who sit on the clothespin statue and poop on people’s heads.

The other relationship is with Carl, who sits in Suburban Station and plays the slide guitar. He plays with his guitar case open and with a sign that proclaims that he is “the hardest working man in street music.”

I have no doubt that he is-he plays in Old City, in the station and on Walnut Street when it is sunny. Originally from California, Carl has dreams of going back. He loves to read and talks to us about books. A friend of his has promised to record him, and we have promised to buy his CDs when they come out.

There are many other people I can remember-like Big Mac, who finally got an apartment but died of congestive heart failure; Gloria, whose house was firebombed by a drug dealer; Isaiah, who asked another YACHTer to study the Bible with him and then disappeared from the streets altogether; Cheryl, who used to sit by the Friends Select School but now sits by Wawa on Arch Street; and Buddha Khan, who taught me the mechanics of chess in exchange for a lunch.

I have not helped any of these people to get off the streets. Am I a failure?

On one hand, it is hard to get someone off the streets. The public shelters are almost all dangerous, and the private shelters have limited space. There are 7,000 homeless people in Philly on a given day-20,000 throughout the year-and there are 2,400 beds in the whole city. Not nearly enough. And YACHT’s purpose is not to get people off the streets, but to develop real relationships with them.

On the other hand, I could be trying harder. A lunch might get someone through the day, and a conversation may lift a person’s spirits. Yet I have no doubt that this is not enough. They need money, jobs, education, good housing. In short, they need justice, something I am inadequately equipped to bring to them.

So instead, I bring them what I can: food, conversation, toiletries, scarves, hats, and blankets. I bring them openness with no expectations, for stereotypes get erased when we meet the poor face to face.

I bring them my love and my realization that although I cannot do everything, I can do something. And in return, I have gotten more than I have given: real conversation, basic instructions on how to play chess, some direction in life and love.

I also remember Mother Teresa’s admonition during these times, that what is sad is not that we do not care about the poor; it is that we do not know the poor. Relationships with the poor will enrich our lives, perhaps even more than we will enrich theirs.

Perhaps this is all I can do for now-to know the poor, to love them, to listen, and, above all, to see Christ in each of them. Perhaps this is my trying, and, like Eliot says, what comes from my trying is not my business.

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