Yesterday, outside the Hogar de Cristo here in Arica, Chile, my mind boggled as I talked to a homeless, alcoholic, filthy and desperate man. Roberto stood outside the door, asking for food, obviously intoxicated. We began to talk, and I found myself struggling for an answer when he asked me why he should not throw himself off a cliff.
If he honestly wanted a motive, ten flashed into my mind instantly. I cannot imagine what keeps someone like him going. He´s 48, completely alone, and alcohol has ruled his life for years. His health is a shambles; long ago he lost contact with his family and friends; and he continually roams the streets looking for the next drink. What hope can a person like him possibly sustain?
As a social worker, I find myself struggling for solutions to the most basic of problems. Day after day, I hear heartbreaking stories of people with a myriad of problems whose only request is a plate of food, a shirt, a few pesos. Tragically, sometimes I cannot provide for them even these most fundamental of needs. I dream of snapping my fingers and getting them a decent education, job prospects, stable relationships, regular food on the table, and an adequate state of health.
As a North American male, my first impulse is always to fix the problem. My world consists of resources—programs, centers, aid, charity—I just have to find the right tool. Chile is another matter—the resources manifest themselves differently here. Thus, the most common response is frustration—theirs and mine.
People come to me every day consumed by fears: where will they spend the night, when will their next meal come, how much longer will their strength hold, when will they hear, if ever, from their families? What gives a person in those circumstances the will to begin each new day?
Stripped of my solutions, my ability to fix the problem, often I only have two things to offer—love and acceptance. I pray that others find hope through conversation, through a smile, or simply through patience. Hope for them, perhaps, comes from eye contact, a touch, or being treated with respect and dignity. Maybe hope comes through care and recognition of them as people, nothing more or less.
I will never comprehend how or why my presence makes any difference whatsoever in people’s lives here, but yet my faith tells me that it does. Rather than making everything right, my role becomes just making an elderly person smile, embracing a homeless person, listening to a child, or just telling someone else that she is okay.
Simple gestures from inebriated friends
Roberto left annoyed because I would not give him some spare change, even though I gave him a banana. Today, I saw him again—more inebriated than yesterday. I attempted to pass him by as he sat inside the Hogar, but he made me stop. He extended his hand, refusing to let me leave before thanking me.
I wonder if I will ever truly appreciate the profundity of as simple a gesture as that handshake.