On a cover of last week’s New York Times, a jagged thunderbolt line of people spanned one edge of the above-the-fold photo frame to the other. They waited in line for food and staples like bread. That image tugged at me long after I had left the corner store, quickly exiting with a dozen eggs and a brick of butter. It didn’t escape my notice that as I looked at the tightly packed pixelated line of people waiting to purchase bread, a bowl of bread dough waited at home, proofing on my counter. Even after my house filled with sweet, slightly sour notes of bread baking, I couldn’t shake the disparity.
A day before, while waiting at a stop light, I spied a homeless man taking shelter under a bus awning. Something about the way he clutched at his coat with one hand and buried his other hand in his hair arrested my attention. Even as he stared into the sidewalk with a look of desperation I have never experienced, I choked up. The ragged image kept my eyes open that night, as I flipped in bed trying to resolve my personal comfort with the knowledge of a homeless man asleep on concrete crosstown.
Earlier that week, a portrait by Lee Jeffries haunted me enough to push me into the web to be caught and stunned by the other photos in his Lost Angels series. In this collection of unbelievable captures, his photos evoke grit and raw emotion in the faces of homeless people he encountered and befriended in Los Angeles and London. Their faces tell their stories etched in hard lines that furrow in shadow. Some of the photos disturb and unsettle the spirit, but can you expect anything less from good portraiture of homelessness? It’s too easy to walk by a homeless person and look away or not see them, but what Jeffries does is provoke a response from his viewers while dignifying and lifting up the people in his photos. An elemental instinct draws my eyes in and keeps them locked on the emotion conveyed in the eyes looking back at me. Perhaps this consists of seeing basic needs unmet and feeling helpless to resolve them in a bigger picture beyond merely handing a homeless man a few bills.
Something about the way we all need the same things ties us together. Without food, water and shelter, how can we survive? Just as important, though, being known and understood in community and being loved keep us intact. What would happen if, then, we really took to heart and to hand the idea of treating our neighbors as ourselves? How would our cultures and countries change? Would a country usurp another’s sovereignty? Would we glut ourselves on excess while others starve?
I’ve been asking myself challenging questions as all the recent headlines jumble together in my head. Reading beyond hard headlines helps cultivate empathy with people we will never meet, letting their stories of struggle become our own for the two minutes it takes to read the article. That we might think of them well beyond the confines of the article continues forging a bigger community for us to be a part of, than the one we have carefully cultivated at home. To stretch ourselves and grow more into the people we will be is to not ignore injustice or stay silent about oppression. It’s to care about the welfare of the people of Crimea and the Ukraine even as the Academy Awards dominates the airways.
What we really need isn’t much: we need each other and perhaps a hunk of sourdough bread to remind us that a little naturally leavened yeast goes a long way and yields something bigger than itself.