Sometimes we see things that we can't get out of our minds. Some of those things we see change us. We're different. We may be better, or worse, or happier, or more fearful -- but we're different. Our outlook on the world changes.
For some the changes may arise from horrible scenes, such as combat, or the violent death of a friend or family member, or starving children. Some are overwhelmed by the beauty they see in the natural world. The abject poverty on an Indian reservation, a cancer ward. A rescued child, a father returning from the war, a homeless family moving into their new home -- the images are as varied as the people who see them.
I recall many images that have shaped my life: Unparented kids in the Eskimo villages of Alaska; young children in groups of eight or ten at 2 a.m. in downtown Minneapolis; a homeless mother afraid for her children; adult women struggling with childhood abuse; dying old men at the prison hospital in Rochester.
Shortly after we moved to Mankato, Minn., to pastor a church there, I was headed home for lunch. I took a shortcut through a rather rundown trailer park. At the end of the row, there was a rickety old trailer, with a little round-faced boy, maybe two years old, standing in the snow on the tiny patch of grass in front of the trailer. He was wearing an old shiny blue snowsuit, with smudges of dirt down the front. And he had little round burn marks on his face. I drove on by. I was in a hurry; meetings to go to, sermons to write. Why did I drive by? I can still see that child.
I remember two hookers in Minneapolis. One of them was old; a cut rate hooker in a ratty old fur coat who did stand-up sex in alleys and frequented a local mission. The other was probably the youngest I ever saw, maybe 12 or 13. She was leaning into a car by the bus depot. I still think about them.
One very cold winter Sunday in Davenport, Iowa, we were ready to go to church, when I saw Claude and his sister walk by our house, bundled up against the cold. They had walked about two miles, and had about a mile to go. They had an old Dodge, but on cold mornings, it didn't start. We could have picked them up, but we had three kids and a tiny car. When I got to church, I mentioned to the pastor that they had to walk to church, and perhaps some member on the west side could pick them up. His response was "Did you ever see his neck?" They were not the cleanest folks, so he wouldn't ask anybody to pick them up.
Something changed inside me. I think I already knew that my growing passion for the poor and the unpopular was not all that exciting to most people. But somehow that tiny event put the issue in bold relief. "If you want to help people with dirty necks, don't bother me." I still remember his words, and the doorway he was standing in when he said them.
I've mellowed a bit, and I've discovered there are lots of people who care. I've learned a little about how to tap into the well of underused compassion which is present in many people, just waiting for the call to arise. But I find I'm still skeptical of the systems. I have a built-in distrust of formal religion that I can't seem to shake, even though I worked as a pastor for a very long time. That's just the way I work at gut level.
Be careful what you see. Sometimes it won't go away.
JIM DINSMORE lives in Tehachapi. His column, "The Human Scene" appears regularly in the Tehachapi News.