Saving yourself by serving others

On Thursday I had the privilege of attending a symposium on homelessness at the LA County Board of Supervisors. There, we watched a documentary called Skid Row Marathon. Here’s the synopsis:

When a criminal court judge starts a running club on LA’s notorious skid row and begins training a motley group of addicts and criminals to run marathons, lives begin to change.

SKID ROW MARATHON follows four runners as they rise from the mean streets of LA to run marathons around the world, fighting the pull of homelessness and addiction at every turn.

Their story is one of hope, friendship, and dignity.

The story begins innocuously enough. Judge Craig Mitchell of the Los Angeles Superior Court is asked by a man he sentenced to go to the Midnight Mission on Skid Row and to see if there was anything he could do to help. From there, he began a running club. And from that, hundreds of lives have been changed.

The men and women of the running club have become his distaff family. But they’re not his “projects”. They’re not people he’s trying to “save”. If anything, they save him. Being responsible for determining people’s fates weighs on a soul. In this, he sees a way to serve beyond his role as a judge.

The film is nothing short of cathartic. I can say that I spent the 90 minutes on the verge of tears. And not all the runners have happy endings. One of them, as it turned out in the Q&A afterwards, is back to living out of his car. That’s the nature of the beast.

In the Q&A, one of the runners, Ben Shirley, implored us to “just show up”. Something as simple as extending a hand, saying “hello”, can make a world of difference.

Last year, voters in my county passed a measure which directed $300m a year to eradicating homelessness. And as of this writing, 14,000 people who were previously homeless have been housed and provided with services.

We are all guilty of making easy assumptions. I am as well. But what we forget in doing so is that these are human beings, who deserve to be accorded dignity. Many of us are one paycheck away from skid row, from living in our cars.

And sometimes it’s not so easy to give them that dignity. Many of the homeless have problems which are beyond our ability to fix, and act in ways which make us recoil.

But if we are to survive as a species, basic dignity and empathy are required. Unless we see everyone as brothers and sisters, not as some frightening “Other”, we won’t make it. We’re at a point in our history where we either swim or sink together. There’s no other way to go about things. We are too interconnected and interdependent to isolate ourselves from each other.

As Judge Mitchell told his son on his 13th birthday: The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality. We are in such a place now. There can be no neutrality. You cannot maintain a pristine detachment. You never, really, could; but now, in these times, such detachment is tantamount to complicity. If you don’t fight for good you are, in fact, choosing a side, and that side is the side of evil.

Whether it’s homelessness, or racism, or oppression, or climate change, we are in a place where to be neutral is to be complicit. As Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train”. What I ask those who read this piece is to not be neutral. I ask you to take a stand. It doesn’t have to be some great, declarative stance. It can be a very small thing. But from these small things, a thousand flowers bloom. Judge Mitchell went to Skid Row on an invitation. He wound up not just changing the lives of others, but his own life. Being connected to others, being part of a broader community, is how we progress. It’s how we perfect ourselves as human beings.

Judge Mitchell is a practicing Catholic. I myself am a lapsed Catholic. But one of the reasons I call myself that, and not an atheist—although I find it nigh impossible to believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God—is because that Catholic upbringing, that belief that the least of these are as close to me as my own family, has been imprinted on me so much. And as a humanist, this is what motivates me as well. You don’t do the right thing out of a fear of punishment. You do so because it’s the right thing to do. The right thing done brings its own rewards.

Reach out beyond yourself. Extend yourself just a bit to bring someone you would normally ignore into your circle, if only for a moment. When we dispense with the notion of the Other, we will truly, finally, live the message of the world’s faith traditions.

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