The most memorable conversation I ever had on the streets is, ironically, with a man whose name and face I can’t remember.
I met him one Thursday evening in Michaelmas last year as I was walking down St Gile’s. He asked if I had any change to spare, to which I responded with a feeble, wordless smile and continued walking. As I walked away, I rationalised my reasons for not stopping: I was cold, hungry and tired after a long day. Furthermore, I was actually on my way to grab groceries for the homeless outreach session happening the next day, so surely, I was already doing my fair bit. Yet, I felt so strongly about the need to turn back, so I did.
Despite my less than friendly response to him just minutes prior, he was very welcoming when I asked to sit and chat. I asked if I could get him something to eat, which he politely declined. He explained that he already had enough for himself for the night, but agreed to earn some money to help his friend get a bed for the night and didn’t want to take a break to eat till he achieved that. We also chatted about where we were from. When I told him I was from Singapore, he asked me if I missed home, if I missed my family, if I was feeling the pressure of displacement, academic rigour and culture differences. He shared his own experiences about being displaced and his longing for home and his son, encouraging me to keep my first priority on doing my best and through that, honour those who have supported me — just like what he was trying to do, bit by bit, each and every day.
I walked away the first time with a sense of self-righteousness, but walked away the second time humbled, almost in tears. If I were he, shivering in the cold, I don’t think I would have had it in me to decline an offer of a hot meal in order to focus on helping out a friend. He wasn’t just going out of his way to help his friend, but also, me. As an international student, settling into a new environment so far and different from home was a daunting and lonely struggle, and yet, without me sharing much, he, a complete stranger, somehow saw that need, bothered to reach out and took the time to encourage my heart.
I have since held unto this encounter so closely to my heart because it reminds me that even if I’m in the position to give and another is in the position of want, I too am a broken person in need of grace. There is a Confucian saying that goes: “三人行，必有我师焉”, which means that for any three people one meets, one is bound to find a teacher amongst them. In the same spirit, this one encounter reminds me that contrary to the stigma and stereotypes attached to the homeless, there is so much I can learn from the experiences and characters of our homeless friends.
One of my favourite verses in the bible is:
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Much of the campaigning, hype and brainstorming for social justice efforts centre heavily around acting justly and loving mercy. Yet, the call to social justice must be centred around walking humbly with our Lord, the perfect judge and the greatest lover of mercy, from whom all things flow.
Therefore, with each day, I am learning that homeless outreach is not simply about doing charity, but about humbling myself before man and before my God. Lest I forget that, of which I am prone to do, I pray that I will remember how my humble Messiah, who through humbling himself to a cross, exemplified justice in His ministry and mercy in His sacrifice.
Written by Olivia Ong