the pain beneath the smile

He is disheveled. Dirty. A cardboard sign marks his place in society, at least for the moment. On it is written barely legible words, but I guess at their content: the typical appeal for money, food, anything to help. Sometimes the signs are clever. More often, they are tragic. Somewhere in between the law of averages determines the truth of each situation. In this case, he stands at the side of the onramp leading onto the Ross Island Bridge from the Westside. It can be a treacherous interchange, both for pedestrians and vehicles. But this guy makes a practice of helping drivers by waving them on when the way is clear. I have made a practice of helping him out in return. I figure he has earned at least a token of my appreciation.

There is the usual thank you, a smile, and often a God bless you. It is all over in a matter of one or two seconds. And I hope. I hope for another chance to see him smile. I pray he withstands the brutal rigors of outdoor life in an unforgiving city. I ask God for opportunities to connect more deeply with this man and others. In the city, or wherever he might lead.

I have never been homeless, although a recent review of my social security statement suggests I spent several years barely eking out a living. Yet, I am acquainted with profound loneliness within the crowded masses which seem to undulate with agendas all their own, never paying much mind to those who have become an invisible part of the urban landscape. I have met millionaires and the destitute. I have dialogued with brilliant minds and severely mentally handicapped persons. God has presented me opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people from all walks of life. But one thing breaks my heart every time I encounter it. A person who has given up. Lost hope. Sees himself as gutter trash. Invisible. Meaningless. Without value.

Not every homeless person holds that self-perception, but I venture to surmise that many hold a wavering hope at best or no hope at all. Ironically, this is not much different from some folks who have homes and incomes, and even expansive wealth, yet still wander aimlessly as to their purpose in life.  I think that is what inspires me most about HomePDX. Ken Lloyd and his team are committed to creating community which inspires care for each other and hope for a better future.

As I wrestle with the conflict of narrative and sub-plots in my story, I identify at some level with those who yearn for hope, yet wonder if it is accessible for the least among us. Ken told me once that it takes hurt people to work with hurting people such as those served by HomePDX. I understand his point. It is a fair one. While I may not be hurt to the extent or in the ways to which he alluded, I am discovering a pain not far beneath the surface which identifies with the forgotten ones in our society.

It is the pain beneath the smile. It dares not expose itself, except only at utmost need. It lies dormant in normal daily life, allowing us to work, play, and relate to each other. It behaves itself in social situations such as church, home groups, and family get-togethers. But in the quiet times, such as driving to or from work, or the late hours when all others are asleep, it sometimes makes its presence known. With brutal sharpness. Some of you know what I am talking about. You feel it even now. And you wonder.

You wonder if you have worth. If you are gutter trash. If you will soon be on the street yourself due to mounting financial problems. If life is worth living.

No, you are not gutter trash. Yes, your life is worth living. Just like some who venture into HomePDX are discovering, our lives do have hope. In Jesus Christ.

Got questions? Ask away. Let’s talk.

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