Probably close to 10 years ago, I attended a church that each winter hosted a program called A Room at The Inn. A church caravan went into the city and picked up homeless men and brought them back to the church where they were provided with clean clothes, toiletries, a place to shower, an elegant meal and then finally a warm, comfortable place to sleep for the night. Members of the church were the hosts for these guests. We served and dined with them. I was in the infancy of my Christian life and felt pretty proud of myself for “helping”, although somewhat guilty of leading a “better life.”
“So what is it you do?” a man sitting next to me asked. He was wearing a donated sweater and had slicked back his long, black hair after his long awaited shower. I remember wondering if I saw him come in, along with the others, as all the men had arrived wearing the troubles of their current living arrangements. “I teach high school English,” I replied. The man’s eyes grew wide and a smile slowly grew from ear to ear. “So, how do you like Shakespeare?” he asked. Before I could really answer, he followed his question with a barrage of quotes from ol’ Willy’s plays and sonnets better than I can remember any of my college professors reciting. I didn’t know what to think.
Shortly after that, a man from another table stood up and walked over to a piano, looked it over, ran his finger across the keys and sat down. He then began playing elegant classical music. One piece after another. Each time interrupted by applause from the entire room. After a good 30 minutes he returned to his seat and took extra portions of the the meatloaf and placed them in sandwich bags and added ketchup. He wrapped bread in napkins and also placed them in sandwich bags. “He’s making Sloppy Joes,” a voice next to me said. I must have been staring. I turned my head in embarrassment. “It’s okay. Don’t feel bad,” the man said. “May I use your phone? I’d like to call my sister,” asked the Shakespearean scholar. I hesitated for a minute, but allowed him to use my phone. He stood over to the side as he made his call. I saw him smile as he was talking. Then he wiped his eyes. His smile withdrew. He returned a few moments later and thanked me.
That night I received a phone call from an unknown number. The man’s sister called and asked to speak with him. I explained who I was and how I had met her brother. She began to cry and thanked me. “You don’t know what it means to me that you spent time with him,” she said through an emotional voice. “He’s been through so much. So many people just see him and keep passing by.” Here’s where I lost it. I began to weep. I was a fake.
I DID pass him and others like him by with my judgements. I thought that since I was a Christian I cared about everyone, yet in the same hand subconsciously I thought I was better, as I am sure many Christians do. Not intentionally, mind you, but in some ways we may think God loves us more. I soon realized that God doesn’t love me any more than the next person. Sure, some people are in their predicament because of their own doing, but does that make their sin any greater than mine? As a high school English teacher in an impoverished area, I have received some degrading looks and comments when I mention the school where I teach. In no way have I been discriminated at high levels like others, but it has made me aware of the misguided perception people have about others.
Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird reiterates the significance of how we can look at people through better eyes: “…if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (30). This is further developed with characters Tom Robinson, an African American falsely accused of raping a white woman, and Arthur “Boo” Radley, the town recluse who “haunts” the town. Tom is an outcast because of his color and status in a 1930s southern town and Boo because he is whispered to be a maniac. Such mindsets are still very much prevalent today and still result in misguided judgments of us and the people around us.
At the conclusion of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout and Jem deduce that “there’s just one kind of folks. Folks” (227). With the help of their father, Atticus, their childlike faith allowed them to finally “see” Boo and Tom as more alike than different than themselves. Do we limit this ideal to a literary piece of fiction or can we go beyond that? Could we? Would we? What about other outcasts?– the orphan, the homeless, the developmentally challenged, the elderly, the terminally ill, the veterans of war, the sexually abused. Romans 12:10 says, “Be devoted to each other like a loving family. Excel in showing respect for each other.” Not, “those like you.” Not, “those who have similar mindsets.” Each other.
This is where Project Radley comes in. Our desire is to use photojournalism to show people that there are no such things as outcasts, but instead see “one kind of folks. Folks.”
– Matt Collier