Today I saw a sight that ripped straight to the core of my humanity. In a steady rain an apparently homeless woman walked down the driveway from the Wisconsin State Capitol. At the bottom of the driveway she stopped, then knelt down almost as if in prayer. For a moment I thought she may be ill. Then she bent down and reached her cupped hands into a large puddle next to the drain in the curb, started splashing water on her black pants, and rubbed her legs fervently, washing away accumulated dirt with the fresh rainfall. After a short time she stood up and continued walking up the street.
In the shadow of the Capitol, with its granite dome and carved statuary, across the street from the elegant Grace Episcopal Church, where night after night scores of homeless men wait in line for hot meals, surrounded by fancy shops and restaurants, this woman had the dignity to use fresh rainwater to try to clean her pants.
In the shadow of that Capitol I stood transfixed and deeply saddened by the poverty in our country. But our poverty is not for lack of wealth. If we are not the richest country in the world any more we still rank among them. Our nation’s poverty is a poverty of spirit. It is a poverty of empathy.
There are hundreds of thousands of homeless people in the United States. According to recent reports there are many more empty houses than homeless people–six or seven houses for each homeless person, depending on the source. Yet they remain empty while familes stand in line for a place to sleep each night, food pantries struggle to feed everyone who is hungry, and women wash their clothes in the street.
It is not just the houses that are empty in this country. It is the souls of those who accumulate massive wealth that could feed all who hunger and those who okay the spending of billions upon billions of dollars in unending wars while children go without basic necessities like shelter and clothes. Where are our priorities? Where now there is greed and neglect there should be sharing and compassion. This is what a society means. It is incumbent upon us as a people to care for our brothers and sisters. We must look inside ourselves and find more ways of doing just that. If losing empathy is the key to the American dream then we should sleep no more.
Tonight I let the rain fall upon me, and try to cleanse my soul.