The route I am on takes us to the blighted no-man’s land encircling downtown Los Angeles, where the web of freeways, the railroads and the Los Angeles River converge. Not too far in the distance loom the skyscrapers of corporate America. I imagine the huge mahogany conference tables, resting on inch-thick carpets, where decisions affecting the lives of the many are made by the privileged few, thirty stories or more above the city. On the streets below, it is a different story altogether. A lone man or woman in need of a bath pushes along a shopping cart crammed with the necessities of survival. An encampment of lean-tos stretches out along a side street in the industrial area. They are made of old blankets, boards, cardboard and anything else that will afford some degree of shelter.
Without the security of a door to lock, it’s safer to sleep in broad daylight than to be at your most vulnerable in the dark of night.
We’ve spotted a man sitting beneath the freeway, his possessions spread out in a mess on a narrow triangle of concrete that divides the intersecting streets on right and left. With traffic whizzing by on either side, he has occupied this spot for the past seven years. Our driver knows him by name and stops the car to deliver a specially prepared lunch. Unlike most of the homeless, this man is a vegetarian, and our standard meal won’t do. John takes out a vegetarian bag and hands it to him. They shake hands and we’re off. Meanwhile across town in the beach communities, another volunteer is well stocked with special food for that area’s Muslim homeless.
It is impossible to come back from a “run” without at least one story. Maybe it was the young man who looked at you like you were a visitor from outer space when you appeared on the sidewalk out of nowhere with food and drink. Maybe it was the fellow reclining against a cold, hard building, whose smile was like the sun coming out. Or the half-drunk older man who struggled to say “Merry Christmas” but didn’t know the English words and ended up hugging you instead while his four companions cheered and treated you like an old friend. Maybe it was the time you had only three meals left, and while you apologized, the four homeless folks graciously assured you not to worry: they would share equally. Maybe it was something humorous, like the man who lost his grip and poured hot chicken soup down your pants leg on that cold December day. Or maybe it was the indefinable emotion that surged through you at the beach the day you stopped a woman from rummaging through a trash bin in search of something to eat and were able to give her a wholesome, properly prepared meal.
Here are people who have lost almost all the things we define ourselves by: homes, possessions, families, jobs, the very self-images we create through where we live, what we own, what we wear, what we do, whom we know, how much money we have. All they have left is their glorious humanity, and somehow that shines through even their degraded circumstances. A thought arises: that same awareness that shines through their eyes, shines through mine and yours. It is the light of consciousness that animates and connects us all. Maybe that is what Swami Brahmananda meant when he said that by serving you begin to see divinity in others and then everywhere. Grateful, I drift off to sleep.