I could write for days about my experiences in Harlem, NY, but one of the most unexpected events was something so simple. It isn’t bound to the streets of Harlem, it can happen anywhere. I take it for granted everyday. It’s listening. Listening and actually hearing. Hearing the stories from the people of Harlem. Stories in their rawest form, unaltered from actuality. Stories that have been silenced from others who don’t have time to hear them or hushed by people in disbelief of their truth.
We hear all the time that speaking is what makes a good leader. No one is ever reminded that the ability to listen is what makes a good human being. Listening is difficult because we spend our focus on what we say. We think that what we say will make a difference in someone’s life. We have the focus always on ourselves. Listening allows us to focus completely on someone else, trying to understand their experiences. What I’ve found is that the troubles in some people’s lives arise from not being heard. I didn’t realize is how hopeless it makes someone feel when they have no one to listen to them.. It makes people feel like no one has time to hear about their problems, much less want to help them. I am not above this. I too need people in my life to listen to me, even if they can’t do anything to help me, it feels better when I talk about whatever it is that’s bothering me.
On my last day in Harlem, I was handing out water for people who were eating lunch at a soup kitchen. I started talking to a man sitting at one of the tables who told me people called him King George. He was very thankful and appreciative with what our group was doing for him and his community. He asked me where I was from and what my interests were. He told me he was very interested in music and he even sang to me a song he had written himself. He told me about how God was always present in his life, even if he didn’t see it at first. He then told me his addiction to alcohol and his battle with cancer. He made sure to tell me that he always maintained his sense of joy and trust in God, even when situations weren’t good. He told me that having money and fame creates more problems than the problems caused by not having any money and that life’s real treasures were joy and helping others. He talked about so much, I wish I could remember each word. We talked for close to an hour even after the chairs were being put away and the tables were being cleaned. At that moment, I wasn’t thinking about what time it was or what else I could be doing that would be more productive. God needed me right where I was. Maybe George needed someone to listen to him, but I needed to hear everything he said. He was a man of admirable faith even in situations where I know I would’ve been uncomfortable, worried, and hopeless. He reminded me that even though we were completely different, he was close to 70 and I am 20, he was from the nation’s largest city and I am from a small rural town, we were able to relate and learn from each other. It wasn’t the typical feeling you get on a mission trip when you know you’ve helped someone in need or you give money to the poor, this connection was two-sided. It wasn’t just a free handout, it was something more. Even though most of my responses were just a simple nod or a few words, his face lit up with the joy of being heard.
I think a lot of times we want to come in and give people exactly what we think they need whether it be food, money, or shelter. In those instances, I find myself focused on the materials we’re supplying instead of the people we’re giving the supplies to. Listening to others and finding out more about who they are removes the barrier between those giving and those receiving. It turns it into a connection between two human beings instead of a free handout.