I was driving with a friend of mine through New York City a long time ago. He got lost and ended up in a battered section of the Bronx. We passed ruined apartment complexes, stores with iron gates, piles of garbage, all kinds of people hanging on street corners and sitting on stoops.
It was a hot summer’s day and people sought relief from their hot apartments. Hydrants were opened, shooting cascades of water in the streets. Kids ran through the water with glee. The car windows were open and with a flick of a switch my window rolled up.
My friend said that the whole scene disgusted him and he did not want to see anymore or hear anymore. I said nothing. He kept on driving.
At about the same time, though perhaps a few months or more apart, another person was driving through Newark and she, too, got lost. She was also in a dangerous section of the city. In those days, there were not many good ones.
She saw some kids and pulled over and asked them for directions to where she needed to go. She noticed that they were standing near a kind of shrine — a spot where a kid was shot to death. There were handwritten notes, whisky bottles with plastic flowers, ribbons and things the boy had owned.
She asked the kids who the boy was and they told her. Her getting lost turned into a right turn, a journey of discovery that is still unfolding. She befriended the kids and soon met the parents of the boy who was killed.
Her name is Helen Stummer, a photographer and a friend of mine. I wrote of her before and she recently sent me a disc with some pictures that will appear in her next book. They are beautiful — black and white photos of people from Newark’s projects, people who she has been helping and photographing for more than 35 years.
Pity pulls at the heart. We see someone in trouble, or pass through a devastated section of a city, and we can either roll up the window and step on the gas, or stop and linger and ask questions and experience something like a conversion, a conversion that makes us stay in places and with people we would normally avoid.
When she started taking pictures of the people in Newark, Stummer writes that her hands were shaking so hard that she was afraid the pictures would blur. She was nervous, trying to find her way in a place to which she was brought by pity.
In fact, the pictures came out quite sharp and clear.
The pages of the gospel are filled with people much like ourselves. Some drifted away from Jesus, unable or unwilling to hear His words about human life, about pity. Others left the places where they were and stayed with Him and learned new and startling things about themselves and others.
Being moved by pity does that over time. Life reveals itself in clear, sharp pictures, a revelation that might have occurred to my first mentioned friend, had he kept the window open, listened and stopped to ask how it was he got so lost.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.