To be quite honest, I hate the phrase “the least of these.” In my mind it reinforces the power differences between people, the hierarchy that rules our world. This hierarchy is the ingrained notion that we somehow must find our place on the economic ladder, stepping on the shoulders of someone else to gain our place while being a stepping stone for the person above us.
Last night I spent the night at a homeless shelter at the local Quaker Meetinghouse. I must admit I was nervous at first, not sure what to expect from our guests, not sure what to talk about with them, afraid I wouldn’t be able to connect with them. I was blinded by the power differences between us and could feel a wall forming.
I now chide myself for this way of thinking because I was viewing these guests as homeless people, not people without a home– there’s a difference. By seeing them as “homeless people” I was letting the fact that they didn’t have a home be the determining factor in how I would interact with and define them. And since I have never been homeless I thought, “How can we relate?” But by seeing them as people without a home, the fact that they were people became the most important thing and suddenly the similarities were endless: we all had families, friends, jobs, dreams, hurts, triumphs. We loved cheddar cheese and coffee and soft pillows. The only difference was the they didn’t have an address. The wall came down.
It is the same with all people we consider “the least of these:” the sex workers, the drug addicts, the migrants, the people who clean our office buildings and bathrooms, the people who make our food. We take that one thing that we know about them and make it THE defining factor: that person is a sex worker therefore s/he must be a whore, that janitor cleans my bathroom therefore s/he must not be able to get any other job, that person is a migrant therefore s/he must be undocumented, lazy, a criminal. We put up walls, sometimes they are like the fence in our backyard but sometimes they are as tall and wide and fortified as the walls on our border. Sometimes they are emotional walls but sometimes the walls are so strong that they might as well be actual physical barriers.
But what if we thought of those same people in this way: that prostitute is a person so s/he must have a mother and father just like me, that janitor is a person therefore s/he must be earning a living just like me, that migrant is a person so s/he must have skin, breath, and blood running through their veins just. like. me. It is our similarities that make us humans, it is our differences that make us beautiful– celebrate them! And suddenly the fact that we don’t look, act, talk, or even think the same doesn’t seem so important. Suddenly there is no wall between me and you because I am you and you are me– we are bound by our common humanity. The following is a beautiful illustration of what I am saying in three different lanuages:
Tu eres mi otro yo (Spanish).
You are my other I (English).
In other words, as Francisco X. Alcaron says, “You are my mirror and I am yours, we are responsible for each other.”
I am trying to take Jesus’ words of “Whatever you did for the least of these (although I dislike that phrase), you did unto me” and I’m starting to see God in people. When I give a person without a home a hot cup of coffee, I see Jesus. The woman asking me for change to buy a cigarrette, yup, that was Jesus. The migrant in the desert that thanked me graciously for the little I could give them (food, water, bandages for their blistered feet, and kind words for their broken spirit)– you better believe that was Jesus.
I’m realizing that Jesus isn’t just in the people that I want him to be in, but he can be seen in every single person I come in contact with. And not only do I see Jesus but I see myself. I hold up that mirror in the face of humanity and see my own reflection and the walls come down. I’m not saying that I have this down pat by any means. God knows s/he has a lot work to do in me but I’m trying. After all, isn’t that all s/he asks of us?
The migrant, the sex worker, the janitor, the begger, the person without a home– Megan