If you have seen the lyric video for Lives on the Line, you will have noticed that many of the photos are of homeless people or people in difficulty. While I sourced some of these photos from iStock, I also took a lot of these myself. What follows is the story of the day I spent taking photos of homeless people.
How do you go about taking photos of homeless folk? In the absence of a “Taking photos of the homeless for Dummies” or similar textbook, I had to come up with my own way of approaching people with my unusual request to take a photo. I decided to offer money as a token of goodwill, and this I did.
Some of you will pick up on the irony of this. I offered tokens of money – an act that I derided in the lyric video. I guess we are all on our own journeys of what it means to lay our lives on the line. For me, offering money to the homeless feels trite and leaves me wanting to do more. For others however, offering money to a beggar requires enormous courage and can be profoundly meaningful. I urge all of us not to follow a formula of sacrifice, but for each of us to listen instead for the promptings of the Holy Spirit in our day-to-day lives.
Anyhow, I got on a train on my day off and headed for Town Hall. For those of you unfamiliar with Sydney’s CBD, Town Hall is in the heart of the CBD and is known for being crowded, dirty and filled with random people asking for help. I felt certain I would find some homeless people whom I could assist with small amounts of money, while at the same time sourcing photos for my video.
Some folk at this point may feel the twinges of hesitation about going into the city and approaching homeless people alone. Indeed, thoughts of my own safety crossed my mind. I had never done anything like this before and it was proving to be quite an adventure. I was uncertain as to how people would react to me, a perfect stranger, wielding an iPhone and making weird requests. Would the homeless be hostile? Would any of them take offence at my request? Would they become aggressive with me?
In spite of the risks involved, I didn’t feel for one moment that I was unsafe in my mission. It might sound unexpected, but I had a sense of being on God’s errand and therefore as safe as could be. No matter who or what I encountered, I knew I was in God’s grip and that my soul was in His hands.
So I arrived at Town Hall and promptly ran into a succession of homeless people. I began approaching them by saying, “Can I ask you a strange question?” I found this was a great entry point as even when people were a little hesitant with me, their curiosity about my strange question would get the better of them. No-one objected to being asked a weird question.
Out of all the people I approached that day, a total of 2 people refused to have their photo taken. The overwhelming majority were willing, and some even happy, to have their faces snapped. One lady I met – her photo did not end up in the video, however I included it at the top of this blog – draped her scarf over her head and did wonderful poses for me. She smiled mysteriously, even when I asked her to stop smiling. After I was finished, she said to me, “I gave you my Mona Lisa smile.” What a character; what a delight.
Many people who I approached seemed to be overwhelmed with a sense of shame. Some people would not look me in the eyes unless I prompted them, and sometimes not even then. One guy, who is in the video in verse 1 at the line which says, “Of one who’s life is drugs and crime. . .” was one such individual who would not meet my gaze. He was willing to have his photo taken, but it took a few goes and some encouragement for him to actually lift his eyes to the camera. When you watch the video, pay particular attention to his eyes; it took some effort to get them in the picture.
Another fellow I met – his photo unfortunately didn’t make it into the video – told me a few jokes and made me laugh. It was evident that he possessed a keen sense of humour and was willing to share this with total strangers. It was remarkable to me that someone in his desperate situation was still able to laugh and see beauty around him, evidenced by the stories he told me. It challenged my stereotype of homeless people, that they are all depressed and unhappy with their lot. This fellow, while not overjoyed with his situation, seemed to be making the best of it. I wonder if I would do the same if ever I found myself in his shoes?
One encounter moved me to tears. In the video, there is a picture of a lady at the start of verse 2, which begins with, “I met a girl today, she shared some of her tale, I listened closely. . .” In the video, she is holding a sign about domestic violence. When I knelt down and spoke to her, she was very willing to have her photo taken and I thought it would be over quickly. But once I was done, I felt that I wanted to do more for her. I didn’t want our interaction to finish. I offered further assistance in my own pathetic way, and she declined, shaking her head at me. Then, to my surprise, she suddenly leapt forward and gave me a hug. I hugged her back and then walked away – but I kept looking over my shoulder at her. You will notice there is another photo of her in verse 3, in the line, “Lord, show them mercy.” That photo was me looking back at that lady, not wanting to forget her.
There were several other stories I encountered that day: stories of homelessness, medico-legal cases, financial deprivation, human connection, animal companionship and curiosity about my video. In all that I saw and heard, what stood out to me was the nearness of the need. There are many in the city who would genuinely appreciate our small acts of kindness, and they live in our own backyard. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by this, I was inspired to realise that this gives us plenty of opportunities to give and to serve.
It was not hard for me to get on that train on my day off, and walk the streets of Town Hall, giving money to those who looked like they might appreciate it. These actions were not hard in themselves; they just required little leaps of faith.
The purpose of this song and video is not to condemn us for our inaction, and it is not simply to prompt reflection. The purpose is to inspire action. If you take any action to help your neighbours in need as a result of this song, I will consider my mission accomplished. Let us inspire one another in this mission, finding creative ways to encourage one another toward action.
The people I met during my day with the homeless will stay with me in my heart, their faces before me, their voices and stories resounding in my ears. I hope I never forget them. If perchance you find yourself in the city one day, you may recognise some of their faces from the video. I hope you reach out to those people if you do. Who knows how God might bless your acts of faith.
2 Thess 1:11-12: “We pray for you all the time, pray that our God will make you fit for what He’s called you to be, pray that He’ll fill your good ideas and acts of faith with His own energy so that it all amounts to something. If your life honours the name of Jesus, He will honour you.” (MSG)