In my previous work with the urban poor, I have been amazed by the gifts and talents they possess. I discovered that despite the absence of economic means, many of them had developed incredible artistic, musical, and intellectual abilities. Therefore, I am no longer surprised to find brilliance among the poor. However, this week a met a guest that challenged some of my assumptions. He is a middle-aged black man with a kind heart and a mouth that rarely stops talking. He is lucid most of the time, but having a regular conversation with him requires some deciphering. Therefore, I was shocked when I found out from other staff members that he used to be a college literature professor in New York.
While none of the staff knows why he went from a professor to homeless, he is on medication, so he has likely struggled with mental illness. Learning about this guest has given me a new perspective on those with whom I work. I see a concrete example of “there, but for the grace of God, go I:” a man, probably coming from a background similar to my own, who ended up on the streets. His presence is a reminder that very little in life separates those serving dinner at Andre House and those being fed. It is simultaneously refreshing and frightening to know how similar I am the guests. Refreshing because our common humanity can allow us to establish deep relationships, but frightening in that circumstances out of my control could someday put me in their shoes.