Saturday, May 16, 2009

Why Can't We See Isidro?

I tutor some students on the weekends. They attend the church where I work and are in various stages of acculturation and English proficiency. Today tutoring took place outside on the playground beside the church because the weather was downright fantastic. This afforded us some unique opportunities for hands-on illustrations and experiential learning.

I asked one of my students (she’s quite bright) to look around her and describe what she saw. She proceeded to list off picnic tables, bushes, trees, and nameless shrub-like plants that surround the playground. She saw a few park benches, some trash cans, playground equipment, and a water fountain.

What intrigues me is what missed her eye. I had to physically point out to her that there was a man laying down on one of the park benches. His name is Isidro. He didn’t make the list of descriptions from the playground, not because she didn’t see him, but because she didn’t notice him. He blended in even though he looked nothing like his surroundings. Trash cans and water fountains made a more lasting impression on her psyche than this man did.

This interesting social experiment was compounded by the fact that there was a sizable contingent of Korean-speaking individuals at my church today. They were using the sanctuary to host the graduation ceremony of a nearby Korean seminary. None of them were from my church, so none of them knew that I work with the Korean congregation there. I greeted these individuals in the halls, and they responded by staring blankly forward; like well-pressed, religious sleepwalkers. Group after group of them came bumbling out of the church doors and onto the playground, looking in vain for the parking lot and their lost vehicles. My spot at the picnic table never got more than a passing glance. I was as immaterial as a ghost, and possibly as frightening, just like Isidro. It wasn’t until I went up and told them in Korean how to get to the main parking lot that they acknowledged my existence.

Now, I am not picking on Koreans, I love them dearly. I am just thinking about my appalling ability to turn fellow humans into part of the scenery, just a backdrop that is nondescript, worthless, and uninteresting. Of course I cannot carry on a conversation with the thousands of people I pass on the freeway, but maybe I ought to think less about a stranger’s usefulness to me, and more about their value to Someone else. Maybe that would dramatically alter the way I view those thousands of moments I have next to them every day.

Isidro is a unique guy. He has a physical handicap that forces him to use a walker even though he is probably only in his late thirties. He also speaks very slowly, but is quite acute mentally. He arrived from Mexico seventeen years ago and periodically lives with his cousin. His cousin is married to “an African American who is Canadian.” From all descriptions they seem like a great family, but Isidro prefers the freedom of life on the streets. He is well kept, and comes to the church on the weekends for showers, and an occasional service. He carries a Bible in his walker.

It was a genuine pleasure to speak with him. He was congenial and unassuming, just as interested to learn about me as I was him. Sometimes the pauses between our lines of conversation stretched for minutes at a time. Maybe it was the beautiful weather that mollified my soul. Or maybe this is how it always feels when two invisible kindred spirits converse with one another.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Soloist: A Review

If you will remember, in a previous post I mentioned the story of Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless man, and Steve Lopez, an LA Times reporter, as presented by 60 Minutes. The piece mentions that the book inspired by their friendship had spawned a movie: The Soloist.

It has been in theaters for one week now and I had the opportunity to see it this Sunday.

I must begin by saying that this film does a great job of portraying the homeless in their own environment and (at points) from their own perspective. Director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) told NPR's Robert Siegel, that once the real Steve Lopez had taken him to Skid Row in downtown L.A. and he had seen the thousands of homeless in the place they call home, his ideas about the nature and cast of the film changed. He says, "I went back to DreamWorks and said, 'Okay I'll make this film on the condition that your lawyers and accountants find a way to pay 500 members of the skid row community." So that is precisely what they did. Real homeless people played the parts of homeless people in the film.

Skid Row comes to the screen in vivid color, and it makes you cringe. In several scenes you watch Steve Lopez's character (played by Robert Downey jr.) trying to find Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) in and around the Skid Row section of town. He searches through human wreckage and is appalled by what he sees. Crack pipes, street fights, murders, overdoses, police brutality, and mental illness run rife through the streets and are hardly any dramatic departure from the reality that I have seen there myself. It gave me a sort of flashback to my first time on Skid Row, as a part of an Urban Research class.

We went to the Midnight Mission in the early afternoon; a small clump of white middle and upper-class students never looked or felt more out of place. We were there to speak to the director about his strategies in presenting solutions to the homeless environment, but the hundreds of people lining both sides of the street called us the "lunch crew" or the "volunteers" as we walked along, naming the two most common categories for cultural outsiders in that part of the city. We looked like suburbanites-with-a-cause, on Skid Row to assuage our guilt-ridden consciences, but we weren't even worthy of that misnomer. We were only there because of a class requirement.

It is impossible to describe that walk along the streets where these people live. If you don't live close enough to LA to see it for yourself, then you need to see this movie. People call out and cackle to one another across the street, they exchange drugs openly in full view of the authorities, and as an outsider you can literally feel yourself being strip-searched by their eyes. There is no question that you are on their turf. As we approached the entrance to the Mission, a lady and a man both in their late twenties began to have an altercation about an exchange of crack. The man came out on the short end of the exchange. The lady punched him in the eye with her fist. From where I stood it looked like she had several rings on her hand with the diamonds removed, this was confirmed by the fact that the man came running past us bleeding profusely. He walked up to the guardhouse of the Mission, got a paper towel, and continued on his way. The woman laughed at him the whole time, she held the bag in the end.

Like a pithy line taken straight from a movie script, the cigarette-smoking guard looked at us lazily and said, "Welcome to the Mission."

You see the rough side of homeless life in The Soloist, no question about it. In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Lopez spends the night next to Ayers on Skid Row, and records their conversation. As Ayers is praying the Lord's Prayer several scenes flow in succession showing the inhumane conditions of the people around him, and the nature of life on the streets. However, The Soloist also shows a sweetness and camaraderie that many of us don't know exists among these people. There are several scenes where "homeless couples" are seen in genuine affection for one another caring for each other's needs and completing each other's sentences. The film leaves you with a sense of hope for the individuals living there, at least they have each other.

As with most films, there was some poetic license taken with the factual events of Lopez' and Ayers' life stories. It also fabricated a well-meaning, but stupid Christian character who acts aloof and insensitive; which I found to be both offensive and misleading. There was no reason to go there, especially because the vast majority of the organizations that work in Skid Row are run by Christians. Perhaps that is Mr. Wright's view of the nature of Christian work among the Homeless. Maybe he feels all Christians only care about filling their church rosters or their church coffers. I would invite anyone who feels this way to view the program created by Central City Church of the Nazarene less than a few blocks from where The Soloist was filmed. The program is not obsessed with making conversions, or trying to pump someone for money, it simply gives the homeless community a chance to enjoy life for a few hours, in a safe, free environment. Need I remind the world that Christ Himself was homeless? That he invited a man who wanted to follow him to first sell all he had and give his possessions to the poor? Mr. Wright was wrong to caricature Christians as being out of step with the real needs of the homeless.

This brings us full circle to the purpose of this blog. I found myself quite moved by The Soloist's story, and am glad that I began this blog several months before I knew the story existed. The point that the film pushes is that Mr. Lopez is entirely incapable of "fixing" Mr. Ayers' problems, but at the same time was able to give him the one thing he needed: a friend. I want this blog to inspire people to get to know the homeless in their area and befriend them, because it is what they need, it is what you need, and it is how Christ Himself would approach them.

In the film Mr. Lopez is asked why he wants to write a story about the homeless Nathaniel Ayers in the first place. This is his response, "Because I am a writer and that's what I do. Everyone has a story and that story is interesting."

I couldn't have said it better myself.