For months I have seen The Other each day during my commute. He is usually writing or praying towards the east, presumably facing Mecca. It is Ramadan and I feel compelled to do something. I am currently in a convergence of faiths: The Other is Muslim, I am Unitarian Universalist, my wife is Jewish, and the car in front of us is probably driven by a Christian--the vanity license plate is naming a verse in Romans. My wife and I are also in a car but The Other is living under a bridge--not only of different faith, but different socio-economic status.
That afternoon I finally buy a waterproof blanket, warm socks, some bottled water, and dates with which he can open his Ramadan fast. The next morning I find a nearby parking space and walk over to his spot under the bridge. He is rolling a cigarette, taking a break from the opened books and half-filled notebooks surrounded by an orderly and neat collection of his possessions. A screen of fallen branches provide him some privacy from the passing cars. Tentatively, I offer a greeting and he comes over to me.
While explaining why I am here and telling what I brought, his brow furrows in confusion. With a thin, but strong voice and looking directly at me with clear and serene eyes, he thanks me, but firmly states that he has all he needs. I am monetarily stunned. Can he be serious? Is he in denial? The many readings of Buddhist literature concerning possessions come to my rescue and remind me that some people don’t seek the car and house with a white picket fence, but aim towards more spiritual goals.
I tell him how compelled I am to do something after having seen a need and ask again that he take what I brought. He accepts, but is clear that he will give my offering to a fellow homeless person who sometimes shares this bridge. I wonder if my insistence has roots in thoughts other than helping. Perhaps I want him to accept in order to save some semblance of my view of his situation. Identifying any action that I have ever taken that had a singular motivation is difficult.
Before leaving, I ask his name. "Yusef," he replies with a smile and we shake hands.
In this case, all my pre-conceived notions, mostly accepted from the media, about Muslims and the homeless fail. He is kind and charitable. He is educated and scrupulously clean. He is satisfied and friendly. I am, again, reminded that even though stereotypes may have some basis in reality, extending that stereotype to all member of a community will usually demonstrate the error of such thinking.
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