With Open Eyes

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

The night I met the young street woman through whom God would open my eyes, the cold was especially penetrating. It was mid-evening, but already the sky had turned the encompassing black of a Canadian winter night.

I’d made excellent time on the LRT (subway), the first half of a train and bus journey that would take me from the gym back to my home. Then came the broken elevator. The only elevator from the train platform to the street above, it was my only way to exit the station using my power wheelchair. I needed to get to street level to catch the bus home.

The only choice was to wait for another train, ride to another station, get off in a mostly unfamiliar station in the middle of a dark night, and figure out what new bus could take me home. Since it wasn’t peak hour, it could be a long wait in temperatures far below zero.

Suddenly, a woman about my age pushing a shopping cart stacked high with debris, old clothing, and other tattered items appeared. Cheerfully introducing herself as Annie*, she asked me to stand guard over her cart that contained her “entire life," then darted up the stairs to see if she could get the elevator going from the top (she couldn't). She ran to the free help phone to call train officials, and was told maintenance would eventually come fix it, but in the past, I’ve seen them take several hours to arrive.

About to head back to the trains, I got the idea to ask Annie if somewhere in the maze of corridors sprouting from the train station there could be another elevator. Dubiously, she remembered a corridor deep in the terminal that led to the basement of a bank that had an elevator to the street. I was excited, but Annie warned me she had been chased out of there before and that would likely happen to us tonight. I was floored; in all my middle-class life no one has ever chased me out of a building.

So toward the bank we rolled, Annie with her shopping cart and me on my chair. And this was the beginning of something powerful. I’m used to occasionally being patronized, infantilized, or stared at because of my disabilities, but by and large people treat me with kindness, dignity, and respect. I smile at strangers and they smile back. I expect and receive kindness all day long.

Rolling alongside Annie, whose cart identified her immediately as living on the street, was different. I sensed person after person recoiling from us. Not looking at or recognizing us. Seeing us as invisible. Dehumanizing the unit we had formed together.

When we reached the bank, a strict-looking security guard came running.

Smiling, I explained the train elevator was broken and I had no way to get out and hoped he’d allow us to use this elevator. In any other situation, I could have requested help from a stranger and expected to be helped with dignity. This time it was dicey. I was part of a unit that included a woman often rejected by society. He uneasily looked at us long and hard, asked serious questions, then let us on the elevator. Then he raced up the stairs to meet us at the elevator as we exited it, firmly escorting us out the building.

Reaching the street, again I felt the stigma and distancing of strangers who would in any other circumstance smile at me and accept my humanity.

Annie offered to walk with me all the way to the bus stop. We spent the time talking about her life and what it was like to grow up on a Cree reservation outside the city; to have left school in grade nine; to have five kids by age 34, none of whom live with her. To carry feathers to remember those kids, for her part, and to adopt kids of Indigenous heritage, for my part.  We talked about what it is like to wear a pair of shoes until they fall off your feet. To live with OCD and keep your entire life in a shopping cart.

I thanked her over and over for her kindness and she told me that "most people are good" and that she wanted to do her part to be kind.

I saw her beauty—physically and in her heart.

She asked me for nothing. I asked if she was hungry, and when she said yes, we stopped at a convenience store and I bought her pop and a few slices of pizza. In the store, a man roughly pushed past me.

We reached the warm bus shelter, and as we walked and rolled past dozens of other people, the recoiling and rejection mattered nothing. I was so proud to be beside this kind, dignified woman. I thought of that Bible verse that sometimes you encounter angels unaware. (Hebrews 13:12).

When my bus came, we shared a big hug. I waved as I got on the bus, leaving her to the cold night, and from the window of the bus shelter, she waved back.

And I realized just how ridiculous our views can be. How easy it can be to see wealth and poverty, ability and disability, high status and low, a shopping cart with all one's worldly possessions versus a fancy house, and make judgments of a person's worth. About who to recoil from and who to welcome. Who to smile back at and who to not see because they are invisible.

That cold winter night, I saw a fellow woman who came to my aid when I was stranded in the train station. She was so kind to me, this woman from whom people recoil.

And my eyes were opened to how Jesus sees Annie. She has so much value and is not less than any other woman because of her poverty, mental illness, lack of a home, or shopping cart.

It brought to mind how in the Bible Jesus taught that we are to love God with all we are and love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27).

When further asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a man was beaten and left by the road. While religious folks passing by ignored the man, it was a Samaritan, in a time and place when Samaritans were not highly regarded, who stopped to help. It was he who was a neighbor to the man in need.

It was Annie, the woman who I saw many recoil from, who was a neighbor to me.

(*Name changed to protect privacy)

About the Author

Jenna C. Hoff is a freelance writer and editor in Edmonton, Alta. She is a member of Inglewood Christian Reformed Church.

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