Two weeks ago, I walked along an entirely different kind of street.
It was dirty, full of garbage, excrement, and raw sewage. Strangers bathed in the streets. Traffic moved about in chaotic forms. The homeless made homes in the streets. Struggling businesses dotted the streets. A dying man laid lifeless in the street. Misery is embodied on the streets.
The streets of Kolkata incarnate life in its rawest form.
The streets are unforgiving and relentless. From day one, walking on the streets grabbed our hearts and wrenched our spirits. Situations took place on the streets that the average American may never witness in a lifetime of living in the states. The streets of Kolkata possess a kind of persona in and of itself, and they demand a toll from everyone who traverses them.
Just on the other side of the gate of our Guest House, there confronted us a family of 5 making their home on the streets. Every time we departed the house — multiple times a day — different members of the family would beg from us, ranging from the mother and father to the naked 2 year old boy whom none of us on the team ever once saw wearing clothes. Each time, the family members would ask for food for the two young children, including the two children themselves. Apparently, the little girl who looked about 8 or 9 was considered a caretaker of the other two smaller boys and taught them how to beg also.
At night after the streets quieted down, the family would lay down and prepare for rest. One evening, I returned to our Guest House after midnight, and the family was just settling in. The young boys were nestling into their mother, still naked, and just calming down way after a young toddler should be laying down for sleep. All sorts of questions raced through my mind:
What does one do when you walk past a family everyday who reaches out to you for food for their children?
What does one do when you see the same two little boys for eight days in a row not wearing any clothes?
What does one do when you walk past an old man collapsed on the road taking his last breaths?
What we witnessed on the streets of Kolkata forced us to ask these questions of ourselves and each other. What should we do in those situations? Is the answer as simple as giving them something to eat? Clothing the child? Sitting with the dying man?
Perhaps it is that simple.
Kolkata forces one to confront the situations on the street head on. The acuteness of poverty makes it undeniable and mistakable for one who lives in a place where poverty seems more hidden and invisible. Whereas in the West, one can often walk past a beggar and totally ignore the person, for there may only be one or two per city block.
In Kolkata, the streets contain more beggars than people walking on the sidewalks! It smacks you in your face! The streets force you to ask these questions, and they demand a response.
In retrospect, I believe that one response is: face your own streets. In Mathew 25:31-40, Jesus tells his disciples a parable that ended, "Whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me." You can splice this every which way, but what if we read this parable for what it says? I think Jesus wants us to take care of the least among our society, whoever that may be. If so, then we need to face our own streets and see them for what they are. Mother Theresa said, "Find your own Kolkata."
I walk much different streets now than I did two weeks ago. In fact, the streets I walk are some of the wealthiest in the United States. The traffic flows according to set rules and regulations. Not one single person lives on the streets of my neighborhood. Small children wear clothing and eat healthy food. People bathe in their homes with clean, indoor plumbing.
Yet, from time to time, no matter where you may live — even me — if you walk with eyes wide open, you can see a glimpse of Kolkata on the clean streets of your neighborhood.
And I believe that if Kolkata has taught me anything since returning home, the streets say to me: see me, clothe me, feed me, sit with me, pray for me, and remember me.
QUESTION: Where do you see glimpses of Kolkata in your neighborhood and city?