Listening with Empathy: What it taught me about Homelessness And Race in America
On a recent beautiful,sunny day I visited the corner of Mount and Presbury Streets in Baltimore. This corner has a rich history as families have lived here for many years. It is also home to one of memorial murals created after the death of Freddie Gray and a painful reminder of the protests that followed. These memorials stand as community based tributes to his life, reminders of his death and calls to action. As I looked at the wall I was humbled by its compelling artistry and left speechless by the words “Rest in Power”, “Seek Knowledge”, “Empowerment” and “Enlightenment”.
I was soon approached by Mr. J. walking across the street calling, “Hello! We saw you from the store and I thought to myself ‘this is a nice morning to say hello to a pretty lady’”. This statement was followed by a quick series of questions checking to determine if I should be welcomed in the community space recently taken over by so many non-residents. My speechlessness left me unable to respond. I wanted to say I was there because of my work as a diversity educator and my role as a mom trying to provide balance to my white, middle class kids. Most of all, I was there because I am dismayed that we continue to have the same conversations about race and feel we aren’t moving ahead at the pace we should. Without the words to express all of these reasons, I simply responded ‘I felt called to visit it’ and hoped my answer satisfied Mr. J. He looked at me, smiled and we shook hands. When we introduced ourselves Mr. J. apologized for not smiling saying he was homeless and didn’t have all of his teeth. When I told him I appreciated the smile in his eyes, he giggled.
What we talked about will continue to touch my soul for many years to come. Mr. J. talked about having been in prison and when released had no where to go. With no marketable skills and feeling rejected he was never able to consistently leave homelessness. We talked about religion and found we shared a belief in approaching relationships from a place of love and spirit not limited to the rooms where we may worship. We talked about men and women and found another shared belief in the importance of respecting each other.
When we talked about homelessness our sharing stopped because I have no frame of reference for being homeless. I admitted being sad to say that in my transfixion on the events in Baltimore surrounding Mr. Gray’s death, I did not once think of the homeless population.
“Mr. J.” educated me on another dimension of those events. When the City of Baltimore was on police mandated lockdown, the residents were told to ‘go to their homes or to face being arrested’ but no one asked where do those without homes to go to? What happened to those people when the makeshift homes developed over the years were trampled by people and vehicles? What did a homeless resident of Baltimore do when the shelter beds were filled but they were not allowed on the streets? These questions added to the long list of questions in my mind prompted by death of Freddie Gray and of so many others. Yet these questions were also indicative of the long standing, deeper issues than those highlighted by the news outlets or contemplated by me and I cannot imagine I am alone in neglecting these areas of thought during those few days.
I don’t pretend to be someone who can answer these questions of how we got here but I am certain by listening with empathy and openness to the many “Mr. J.’s” of the world and truly understanding their stories we can create change. I am certain we must truly see the murals in our cities serving as documentation of local history and see the messages in these murals as calls to action. I am certain to create sustainable change we must hear the voices of our children asking us how to partner with them to create the future they want to have. I am certain that we must see each other as humans of equal importance. I am certain by doing these things we will be change agents seeking the lessons to be learned from each other and to move these questions to those of the past.
That morning Mr. J. became my teacher and I imagined him being a teacher of others and believe we both meant it when we shook hands looked deep into each other’s eyes truly acknowledging each other and sharing our time together was a true blessing. As I was getting ready to leave, I asked “Mr. J.” if it was OK for me take a picture of the mural and he said that would be a good idea but didn’t want to be in it ,adding with a broad smile that ‘the ladies might find him’. I took my pictures, shook his hand and thanked him again for his time and openness. As I walked away he called “Jennifer” (when we exchanged names, he said “Jennifer” was far more dignified than my nickname “Jen”), you can take my picture too.” I did so and I am posting here the pictures of the mural but I am keeping the picture of “Mr. J.” with his hand on the painted handprint made by a child for my own private reflection, to remind me to see and hear those around me, a reminder I frequently need in these busy times when it is is easy to overly focus on our own experiences.
Follow-up Note: After meeting Mr. J. and believing listening with empathy promotes growth, I signed up to volunteer for the Baltimore Project Homeless Connect.http://www.uwcm.org/main/index.php/project-homeless-connect-baltimore.html