I turned right instead of left. That’s all I did, and it made all the difference. I don’t know why I did it exactly. My wife had sent me out to pick up some groceries, and it was habit to turn the steering wheel left when pulling out of our apartment complex. Yet, something inside compelled me to go right, driving past the lower income housing in Southeast Nashville, where every sign quickly goes from English to Spanish to Arabic.
Although Nashville isn’t New York, it’s still a formidable city, and the largest one I have ever lived in for more than a year. When I moved here from the Midwest, it was culture shock on a lot of levels: sweet tea, deep drawls, cowboy boots, belt buckles, Christian music, SUVs, guys with haircuts styled after Jan Brady and visible poverty. With the exception of the one guy who lived in the local park, I never really saw a lot of poor people when I was growing up or attending college. So, when I moved here, I didn’t really know what to do. These people who approached me on the streets asking for money frightened me. Did I give out of fear, point them to the nearest shelter or just blow them off like everyone else did? In my two years of living in Nashville, I’ve done all three; however, I’m beginning to learn a deeper truth regarding the homeless and urban poor: their lifestyles will change when mine does.
I live between two worlds. If you go a mile in one direction, you can pick out a new towel set at Bed Bath & Beyond, get fresh sushi at Kroger and swing by the Smoothie King hut for a nutritious snack. If you go a mile in the other direction, you find people who survive off of the public transit system, don’t know much English, and live with their brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents all in the same apartment.
Left is the direction of suburbia. Right is where the poor live. Sometimes, those two worlds are that close. Left is where I get stopped by Mormons with backpacks in the parking lot. Right is where graffiti colors the sides of buildings. Two worlds, right next door to each other—and I, much to my own shame, rarely turn right.
Usually, when I leave my apartment building to go pick up some groceries, rent a video or buy a random household item like Krazy Glue, I turn left. After all, that’s where Wal-Mart is. That’s where the white people are. That’s where “safety” is.
But for some reason, I went right that day and picked up my glue at the superstore where the Hispanics do their shopping. Now, I know that sounds potentially racist, but you don’t live where I live. It is racist. It’s that segregated. Half the people in my apartment complex go where the white suburbanites shop, and the other half go where there are signs intentionally written in Spanish, so they know what they’re purchasing. Granted, pockets of cultural concentration exist in every city, but we need to learn to occasionally cross those borders and learn from those whom we so often avoid.
Once a month, my church delivers groceries to needy families. I meet another guy around 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning, and we drive around the city dropping off boxes full of dry goods to people who lack the finances to buy groceries and the transportation to go out and get the food.
One weekend, we dropped off a box at a townhouse near Belmont University in Nashville. It was interesting, because often when we do this, someone gives us a sob story, or we see something questionable happening in the back room. But this time, none of that happened. She just cried.
Her name was Michelle, she was unemployed, living at home with her two kids and the third on the way. The dad was out of the picture. When we brought the groceries in, she couldn’t stop thanking us through teary eyes. When we offered to pray for her, she wept the whole time, repeating, “Thank you, Jesus.” We hugged her, and said goodbye, as she was still crying.
I couldn’t get that out of my mind—the sound of her sobbing, the tears. It kept me up at night, haunted me in my dreams. I thought about her for two weeks. I prayed for her, told my friends about her, shared the story with my church. And just then, when my life threatened to move on, when Michelle was about to become just another sermon illustration or a character in an article somewhere, I turned right.
My fiancée and I visited her. We brought more groceries. Other friends came to visit. We talked, laughed and watched TV together. Once, they were out of toilet paper, so we picked up some double-ply for them. Another time, we baked cookies for the whole family. We even took her kids to the zoo. We invited Michelle and her family to church, and to my surprise, she accepted. For Thanksgiving, they joined us for a huge potluck dinner where the church embraced them. I got to know them the best that I could; we became friends.
One winter evening, two days before Dec. 25, I showed up at their door with a Buick Century full of Christmas presents. And hope was restored. All because I made a choice to go back, to turn right, to not move on.
It’s hard not to paint stories like this without making them sound like they’re about us, the great protagonists of these stories of hope. They’re not, of course, about you or me, but we have to recognize how much is riding on us when it comes to justice. Admittedly, not every issue is as simple as turning right instead of left, but in my experience, a lot of Micah 6:8 can be fulfilled in simple, everyday choices. There are other stories, as well. I could tell you about Pat, a woman I met who had breast cancer. All I did was give her my business card. One day, she called me to say that she was about to be evicted; two weeks later, I had raised enough money to keep her from returning to homelessness. Then there’s Eugene, a “bum” who needed $11 to catch the Greyhound to Memphis, where a job was waiting for him. These stories all around us, if we will take the time to listen.
There’s a story in Scripture that goes like this:
“One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, ‘Look at us!’ So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.” (Acts)
For the longest time, I thought that the story was about healing. Maybe it wasn’t until I moved to Nashville that I was able to recognize what was really happening with Peter, John and that lame man. It wasn’t until I walked city streets and saw people in wheelchairs waiting outside of churches, begging. It wasn’t until I felt an inner voice telling me to just ignore them, to avert my eyes and somehow they’d disappear from my conscience. And that’s when I saw a sentence that I had missed before: “Peter looked straight at him, as did John.” They didn’t look away. And neither should we. Sometimes, justice is just that simple. Looking into the eyes of another human being when we’d rather pretend that we didn’t see him. Choosing to schedule your life around those who are hurting and losing hope. Turning right instead of left.