He stands alone on the curb; an island beside a river of drivers intent upon their own heroic mission…a place to be, a task to complete, a deal to transact, a person to meet, a shopping list to fill.
Although I catch barely a glimpse of his solitary shape through the traffic, I recognize the stamp of homelessness. Limp hair separates in strings about his ears, a beard wraps his neck like a scarf, sombre clothes fall from shoulders sloped by life’s burdens. A bundle – perhaps a backpack or bag – lies on the ground at his feet. He clutches a single piece of cardboard scratched with the handwritten words, ‘HELP ME’.
The Native woman sits opposite me, speaking quietly, her hands folded upon themselves. Her hair falls in greying whispers upon her cheeks; her face is creased, chiseled deep by careless words and misguided actions. She was seven when the government placed her in a residential school. “They took me from my family, my culture, my language, and put me in a white man’s world. They took my identity. Now I live between both worlds; I belong in neither.”
So she clings to her identity as a child of God. She tells me she once asked God for a word; he gave her “Harmony”. She asked why he allowed pain to come to the native people; he told her, “Theirs is the pain of people who have been denied honour, esteem and love.”
I’m in a taxi, weaving through suppertime traffic on my way to the Toronto airport. My driver bears the weathered look of a Tibetan Sherpa. It is May, yet he wears a furred winter cap and sagging hand-knit woollen sweater. I think he has not adjusted well to our country, then he tells me he is a nomad from the Sahara Desert near Timbuktu.
I ask him what lured him out of his desert to Canada. He wanted a better life for his children in a beautiful country, he says. Did you find it, I ask? No, he says sadly. He has decided Canadians live too fast, consume too much, care too little. Disillusioned and disappointed, he tells me he will return to the Sahara before another winter sets in.
“I came looking for something that I now know does not exist anywhere on Earth,’ he adds.
“What is that?” I ask, intrigued.
“Freedom, justice and human rights.”
“And what will you tell your children when you return?”
“If you want these things too, then you must make them yourself.”
What have these to do with Christmas? Good question. They are scattered stories emerging upon the page as I sit to compose this post during a winter storm. I’ve felt lost of late, and the process of writing often leads me home. It began last year in Haiti, I believe…in a moment when I looked across an empty courtyard and saw the eyes of Jesus in a broken, battered man. Such moments change a person. You cannot go back.
The thread continued, as I became more involved in local activism. As is often the case, when you wade into battle, you discover the enemy is not who or what you think it is. While facing an oil and gas industry that degrades the environment, negatively impacts health, and widens the gap between the rich and the poor, pits neighbour against neighbour, we found even greater enemies… complacency, prejudice, judgement, oppression.
Having visited a country where people trampled by government corruption and foreign industry survive by re-manufacturing mountains of our cast-offs and garbage; where climate change, exacerbated by the burning of fossil fuels, causes severe weather events, I can no longer ignore how my decisions affect others. The words of a woman ring true, “We used to think God was punishing us, but now I am angry because I realize it is the rich countries that are to blame.”
In August, I spent three days camping and participating in sacred ceremonies at a First Nations conference. As we sat together in a clearing in the forest, watching nighthawks and waiting for the first stars to appear, I saw people making a heroic effort to reclaim their cultural traditions, pride and strength. Later, some were arrested for upholding their sacred duty to protect Mother Earth. It’s a commitment to duty that few of us might understand. We forget that it takes many diverse trees to create a strong, healthy forest. Protecting the garden is their Great Mission; one they may have strayed far from, but have we not strayed also from ours?
I’ve become more sensitive to prejudice and judgement as I’ve learned how Canada has oppressed native populations, withholding the honour, esteem and love we should have afforded our First Peoples, and how our policies affect those in other countries. And then, when a stranger tells me that my country – the one my ancestors built on their pursuit of freedom, justice and human rights – seems bereft of these values, I realize he is right. We have fallen far from our heritage, from our beliefs, from our values.
Cloistered in the insulation of our busy lives, we often only remember the poor at Christmas. We believe the oppressed live elsewhere. We forget the voiceless and belittled who live amongst us every day. It all seems so huge and dangerous…this chore of opening ourselves to compassion, and of feeling love for the unlovable. But how we walk in the world is so important to our heart and soul.
Remember the man with the ‘Help me’ sign? I would like to tell you I did the right thing. But while I sat conflicted in a parking lot across the street, watching and wondering whether I could provide what he needed, a beautiful stranger stopped to offer help. So I sat alone and wept, realizing the man on the side of the road was perhaps not mine to help, but his image was mine to carry. Like the man in the Haitian courtyard, I knew he would never leave me.
So, this Christmas, as we celebrate the birth of a rebel who challenged the authorities of his time, I return to the profound wisdom offered by a nomad immigrant driving a Toronto cab. “If you want these things, you must make them yourself.”
Be the change you want to see in the world. Watch for Jesus in the eyes of those around you.
I leave you with the words of Nelson Mandela, who broke the law to create monumental change:
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains,
but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
And a hope that, in the coming year, you will find your own Harmony, and pursue one personal change that makes the world a freer, healthier, more diverse place. Remember: be gentle with yourself if you fail, but carry your lessons well.
I’m sorry I’ve been away so long…God Bless and keep you safe,