Straddling Extremes

Realizing that I am among the least of these.

I live in a city that is straddling extremes. One minute you’re walking down a street that looks like something out of a movie with cute, little shops lining the cobblestone streets and the next you’re walking down an alley with fire escapes and broken windows scaling the building.

A while ago, my city was home to only First Nations tribes, voyageurs and surveyors until the Canadian Pacific Railway. Upon the construction of the railway, North Bay, was established as a town and I guess the rest is history. My city is full of different groups of people. There are young families, older families with high school/university-aged kids, the elderly and the transient, poverty stricken young/middle-aged adults.

This means that whenever I’m running around the city doing errands, I chat with everyone from a young mother with a stroller to an elderly woman at Casselholme to a guy busking with his guitar outside of the Food Basics.

It’s uncomfortable at times. I mean, I’m not listening to a sermon from a young pastor about justice, love and mercy, romanticizing the poor and poverty stricken. I don’t want to avert my eyes everytime I cross Main Street, looking anywhere but the man collecting pop cans with his shopping cart. It’s always there. There is no more averting my eyes.

Can’t I just get my $5 tea without being bothered????

Then, the dirty, smelly homeless man with his mangy dog looks up at you and says, “I sure like your pink coat,” with a toothless grin.

Another day and I’m waiting at Tim Hortons for my bagel and yoghurt. A man, filthy and friendly, wants to talk to me. He’s chatting away harmlessly. And, to be honest, I don’t really know what it’s about because I can’t understand all of what he’s saying. I’m uncomfortable because he’s standing a bit too close. He knows I’m a high school student and asks what subjects I like because “I never got to go and I think about it a lot.” The girl at the counter looks at me apologetically and says she can “get rid of him” for me. I shrug and say, “It’s fine.”

I walk to the library to finish my homework before youth group and a woman riding her bike stops and asks me if I’m home for the week. She assumes I’m a university student. I tell her that I’m still in high school and that I’m currently living at home. She wants to tell me about her kids. Two of them dropped out of high school because of drug addiction and they work service jobs. Her other child is still in elementary school. She says she has hope for that little one to move onto a better future but she’s worried he’ll follow in his big brothers’ footsteps.

I’m at work and I had just finished putting away the rope swing the kids play on during all public swims. A man in a wheelchair is on deck just outside the family changeroom. He’s wearing a Montreal Canadians jersey and he’s eating lunchmeat out of a bag. As I get closer, I notice one of his legs are missing. He pretends to be choking so I make a joke about that making my job a lot harder. I ask him if he’s here watching his grandchildren. He is. He tells me about his other kids (the ones who aren’t the parents of his grandchildren at the pool). His other kids never visit him. They only live one hour away and they have large families with lots of kids. They never get to see their grandpa. This man lives in an old age home where his privileges are limited. He says he would visit his kids but he isn’t allowed.

I’ve realized that those that are scrutinized by our society, the ones we call “the least of these” — the broke, the ill, the addicted — are just, you know, people.

Because they are no longer “the poor” or “the addicted” or “the mentally ill.” They are people. They are my neighbours and friends. With faces and names and stories and life within them.

Sometimes I think it might be nice to live in a society where you never meet people that live on the cusp. It might be nice to live in a gated community with no cracks in the sidewalk. And live with people who look like me, think like me and expend like me.

But that is not necessarily the Kingdom of God all laid out for us — the elderly, the ill, the impoverished, the addicted, the young kids and even people like me, just recently learning that I, hard-hearted and self-centred, am among the least of these.