By Gil Clelland
Love has a name.
We were out on an educational walk in our city’s core learning about poverty. Six SERVE students and I were engaged in a good conversation, trying to understand how people can end up on the streets and what we can do to respond. And then we saw him.
He sat there alone. People walked by. Perhaps they did not notice him. Perhaps they did not want to notice him. Grey, weathered clothing blended into the grey, weathered sidewalk. An empty hat opened expectantly to offerings from passers-by. A cardboard sign – “Any help will do.”
I knelt down to speak to him. The youth gathered with me. He looked at us all, and his hauntingly empty eyes met mine. “New to the city?” I asked.
“Just passin’ through…off to Toronto…soon, I hope”
“My name is Gil. Good to meet you,” I said, and I offered my hand.
“Yeah…” No hand returned.
I withdrew my hand and sat down. The youth knelt in close. We talked for a bit. Small talk was tough. I tried. Dave, a 14-year-old youth from a small farming community tried to share a bit. This man did not respond much. Sometimes, trust is hard to build for someone who has seen so much. After a few minutes, we got up to leave. We excused ourselves and turned away.
“I’m Ken…” I turned back. His hand was out. I shook his hand, caught his eyes and a moment of connection occurred. Ken felt safe enough with us to share his name. He looked at each one of the young people. In order, he shook their hands. “Thanks for stopping to say hello.”
We walked on for some time after that in silence. We each knew that we had just experienced something sacred. Then I reflected about the homeless memorial in Toronto. Thousands of people are listed there. People who have died on the streets. By far, the most common name among those dead is John Doe. John Doe is the name the city gives to people when they don’t know their real name. In other words, many of those people named and listed as John Doe died alone. They didn’t even have their name. And that is the biggest problem with homelessness. People are home-less. They do not have all the things we think of when we think of home. Sometimes, not even their name.
Jesus commanded us to love our neighbours as ourselves. The question I ask is, “How can we love our neighbours if we don’t know their name?” It is only when we get to know people by their name, by their story, seeing them as truly human, that we can begin to love them.
At SERVE, we try to break those barriers. We try to get to know others by their name. At SERVE, we get to hear their stories. We share our stories. We sit for a while. It may be tough. Small talk may seem wooden and uninspired for a while, but we learn to keep trying.
Love begins with “hello.”