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People are actually nice...despite everything

Years ago when I was a reporter I had the terrible idea to live on the streets of Washington for a few days to do a story about homelessness in the Nation's Capital. It was January. Cold, old snow on the sidewalks, bitter wind. You get the idea.


So I arranged to sleep in a men's shelter at night. It was a former Catholic school near St. Matthews Cathedral and a priest would line us up and make sure we weren't drunk or stoned when he let us in at six o'clock at night. We had to be out by six in the morning. Some men had mattresses on the floor, others had just the box spring. Nobody had both. I got the box spring and an old blanket. These "beds" were about a foot apart.


The toilets were clogged and the showers didn't work so the rankness of the rooms was in full bloom. Many of the men wouldn't have showered if ordered to do so. The bouquet of feet and unwashed body parts was a hint of what the entire world was like a few centuries ago when nobody bathed very often. My box spring smelled of urine that had once been something alcoholic.


I would lie there at night and rue the day I ever thought this was a good story. Days were spent wandering the streets of Washington with a few homeless men, eating in soup kitchens where cats walked on the tables and men walked around looking lost.


One night in the shelter I was at the door staring through a cracked window at the blowing snow and feeling lonely for my real life when a man came up next to me. He was from Ethiopia, an engineer by training. His family had been murdered in some act of revenge and he had to flee his country and now he found himself standing next to me in a shelter looking out at the cold. He was very pleasant and well spoken, if deeply sad.


Behind us a crippled man who had trouble walking was going from man to man handing out cigarettes. You could smoke in those days. Here was a man who held no high cards. Dirty, crippled, uneducated, no job, no hope and homeless in winter. But he was a light in the room. He smiled in a friendly way that make him charming. He went from man to man, smiling and struggling to walk, handing out cigarettes bought with the change he had collected during the day. He didn't seem to have a "me" bone in his body.


Here I was, a white guy who had a pretty nice life, standing next to a sad Ethiopian who had lost everything, watching another black man who was a walking example of generosity. It occurred to me that I was having a Biblical moment, a living parable. It was humbling. I had a thought that has stayed with me all these years. Wherever you go there are examples of goodness waiting to be seen.


We are seeing it now. Doctors and nurses, janitors and truck drivers, people whom we normally don't see, making us safe. God bless them all.

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