Clouds thinly veil the moon, choking out the few rays of silver light that reach out like long fingers over glistening skyscrapers and reach into the speckled heart of Los Angeles, California. In a dark desolate area called Skid Row, thousands of poverty-stricken people trudge the dark streets like phantoms, eyes roving blindly over each passerby, vacant with the hopeless realization that they will never find prosperity. Security is a distant dream that has vanished with each passing day, and each haunting moment is a constant reminder of an ever-growing desperation for what will never be.
Growing up in a middle-class family in Dallas, Texas, I had never been exposed to many of the hardships that many members of society experience daily. So it was with a cautious, yet inexperienced mindset that I piled into the whitewashed van that first summer night in LA, expecting that my egregious misconception would whole-heartedly consume me. I was completely unprepared for the uncensored view of human disparity that the mission trip would offer me, completely unprepared for the the heart-wrenching poverty that filled my eyes, the long line of hopeless people camped in ragged tents and stretching down crumbling sidewalks.
My horrified mind could barely grasp the dim outline of the man slowly shuffling from trashcan to trashcan, filling up a stolen grocery cart with putrid, leftover garbage. Looking through the transparent glass window, my wide blue eyes flickered from face to face, drinking in each hard and empty gaze staring vacantly back at me.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed an image that stung my mind and nearly brought tears to my eyes. I saw an older African-American woman stooped down over her teenage daughter’s hair, intently weaving it into a neat braid. There was something in the girl’s posture, a certain level of unspoken defiance in her gaunt frame that spoke of an untainted fervor for life. She slowly looked up at me, her fierce, guarded eyes masking a barely supressed passion so intense that it seemed to smolder within her.
For a moment her eyes held mine and in that moment the startling realization bared my soul — she and I were the same. All throughout my childhood and adolescence I remember my mother braiding my thick blonde hair into tight French braids in a futile effort to cool my neck from the ruthless summer heat, her loving fingers carefully arranging each strand in a perfect pattern. As I peered cautiously throught the window once more, I realized with a sharp intake of breath how easily that could have been my mother combing her narrow fingers through my long hair.
Her eyes continued to stare straight into my soul and in that instant, time slowed to a heavy heartbeat, an eternal moment that sent us both spinning in a world where money or social status didn’t matter. It was a place that only she and I shared, a place that sliced away every racial prejudice or haughty demeanor and recognized the simple reality of two human beings standing side by side, heartbeat to heartbeat, breathing the same humid air and feeling the same gamut of emotions embroil within our hearts. Somehow, as the moment rolled away with the ever-turning wheels of the van, I felt a deep sense of loss envelop me.
I suddenly regretted every casual, uncaring glance at the people camped in cardboard boxes on the side of the highway. I regretted every grudging thought of laziness directed toward the solitary figures, and suddenly I found myself desperately thankful for the small blessings that have filled my life. In the single moment that I spent peering through the eyes of another, my world was left spinning, completely altering my worldview and grafting within me an intrinsic set of convictions that have since guided my life.
I was ransacked by the sudden brevity of life, by the need to make the most of every moment that is given me, not just through shame or shallow success, but by reaching out with unclenched fingers to those around me despite the opinions of peers or so-called friends. I was inspired to live a life of freedom, to ‘suck the marrow out of life’ by grafting my passion for people into those in need. From that moment on, I tore my thoughts from the past and set my eyes on a new future just waiting to enthrall me.
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