I recently spent some time in Chicago on a rather impromptu visit with some friends. When I arrived at O’Hare airport, I immediately hopped aboard the blue line train, which would take me into the heart of downtown and ultimately, to my hotel. The train ride started off like any other, and was actually quite reminiscent of the metro system in the DC metro area that I’ve grown so accustomed to. The familiarity of it all made the reality of my traveling alone in a new city much less daunting.

   However, as I started to sink into a stupor from the rhythmic rocking of the train, a man stepped forward and began to address the commuters. He said his name was Ryan, that he was homeless, and was currently suffering from a diabetic infection in both of his legs. As I directed my gaze downward to assess the condition of his lower body, I could see there was no contesting the veracity of his statement. His legs were swollen from edema, and there were gaping wide wounds oozing blood and pus. It was unsightly, repulsive even, but I couldn’t look away. Ryan persisted in sharing his story. He proceeded to describe his efforts at seeking medical care and that it was necessary for him to share some of the cost of treatment. That was his entreaty, a few simple dollars to get this treatment underway. Would we help him? I was moved by Ryan’s boldness and the way he asked audaciously for what he needed. Few of us could muster that kind of courage and stand before a crowd making such a desperate plea. Yet I noticed that while Ryan was sharing his story, none of the other passengers even looked at him. He was just an intrusion it seemed, and maybe if they fixated on their smart phones or sneakers hard and long enough, he would just disappear and their comfortable realm of luxury and self-preservation would be restored.

   I gave Ryan some money, hoping that others would follow suit. It didn’t happen. He limped through the train car and was met with a deafening silence and averted eyes. My heart broke for him. I felt a dull, throbbing, sinking feeling in my chest as I thought to myself, “Am I witnessing the demise of human kindness and decency right now? Is this how I would be treated if these were my circumstances?” I would say that I lost my faith in humanity, but my faith is in an all-powerful God whose love is not only everlasting, but who is the very embodiment of love (1 John 4:8). When Ryan had finished pacing the car and turned up mostly empty-handed, he asked those who were part of a church to pray for him and request their congregation to do so as well. I looked Ryan squarely in the eye and told him I would pray for him. I so earnestly wanted him to know that I saw him and heard him. I wanted him to know that he was not an inconvenience, but a human being with a soul of great intrinsic worth. I wasn’t sure if I could convey all of that in the moment, but I would try. Ryan then slinked away to the next car by way of the emergency exit.

   The train ride continued without a hitch, but I was left reeling emotionally from the encounter. Would Ryan be alright? Would the passengers in the next car ignore him as well? I prayed for him and have not been able to stop thinking about him since. I thought of the other passengers and what the state of their hearts was. I was reminded of a phenomenon I studied in a college psychology course called the bystander effect (or bystander apathy), which occurs when people are less likely to help a person in distress when there are a greater the number of people present. Are people really that predictable? The thought of it offered little consolation or reassurance.

   When I went to bed that night, thinking of Ryan, I remembered Jesus and how he treated the lepers of his day.  When they approached him with their rotted flesh and disfigured bodies, he could have waved his hands or snapped his fingers to bring them healing. However, Jesus was not a magician interested in showcasing parlor tricks. He touched them because he was not only interested in bringing healing to their bodies, but to the aching depths of their lonely souls too. I’ve made a promise to myself that even if I can’t offer financial assistance, I will aim at minimum to offer dignity and respect to those who dare to ask so audaciously for what they need.