Saying hello

Dear Pope Francis,

Just a short note today because I am not digging unemployment and spending most of my time trying to change that. Mostly I wanted to say thank you for thinking of the un- and underemployed in your intentions for this month and share a story about saying hello.

Last Thursday, I woke up to the sound of clinking bottles as an old man rummaged through the recycling bins at the curb for collection. It was a weird moment of collision between two worlds.

When I was living in New Brunswick, one of the guys I dated would throw plastic bottles out his car window along the road into town. I would be mad he was littering, he would justify it as giving five cents to one of the people who made their living walking around collecting bottles and cans for recycling.

When I mentioned the old man to Lauren, she wasn’t surprised. It’s a common thing where she comes from. It wasn’t strange to me that there was a man with a shopping cart collecting glass bottles from the bins. When I would go to the bottle depot in Fredericton with the recycling from my apartment there was usually a few people there with similar setups. The strangeness came from seeing the man in the middle-class suburban neighbourhood my parents live in.

One of my siblings went off on a rant about how “people like that” should get real jobs instead of stealing from others. I was really confused by the outrage. How could it be stealing for this man to take what we clearly weren’t keeping? How is it not a job for him to go out and collect the glass bottles and return them for the 10 cent refund we don’t value enough to get ourselves?

More than my confusion over my sibling’s outrage was the strangeness of realizing there are poor and homeless people everywhere. They don’t stop existing outside of Toronto where I’m used to seeing people panhandle on the streets and where I know about the soup kitchens and shelters. They don’t stop existing outside of small town New Brunswick where there’s not much work to be had.

When my sister came to help me move from New Brunswick back to Ontario last month, one of the things we talked about during the drive was poverty. It bothered me to be told people are poor or homeless because they made bad choices. The simultaneous dismissal of the fact that there is a human being sitting on the cold ground asking for money for a coffee and judgement of that person for being in the situation in the first place. The idea that it’s not my fault and so it’s not my problem.

“Give to everyone who begs from you, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” (Luke 6:30)

I used to walk past the panhandlers I would see in the streets of Toronto when I lived there. I remember getting frustrated initially by how long it would take to walk anywhere with my SERVE brother Mike because he saw everyone. Every person we passed he would stop and say hello to. I don’t remember if he ever gave them money, but I never forgot how he always stopped. I wasn’t comfortable stopping to say hello at first. Then I started noticing how people smiled. Even if I didn’t have anything to give, it mattered so much to be acknowledged.

Hello. We use it as a greeting, but what it really means is “I see you.” When someone greets you, it means you exist.

–Meredith

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