Up Front and Personal

Mere Presence Makes All the Difference

by Emily Allen

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – A few months ago, I became friends with a man who had dramatically marked my views on life and on my mission here. Let’s call him C. He was born into a rich family in the mountains of Paraguay and spent more than a few decades of his life like St. Augustine. That is to say: a lot of alcohol, money and women. Eventually, he wound up here in Buenos Aires and spiraled downward into deep poverty.

His long-time lady companion left him for another man with more money, and he stayed behind, completely and utterly alone. He fell into alcoholism, took up a few jobs and started going to the soup kitchen to survive. His health became very poor, and he could hardly walk. His only companions were his dog, Black, and a fellow alcoholic who took to living in his house. Then his alcoholic friend left, and C. was completely alone in a life void of love.

The first time I went to his house, I knew what to expect. I had been warned. We knocked on the door as usual and waited. You could hear the slow shuffle of someone walking stiffly inside. The curtain pushed aside slowly, and I was face-to-face with C. for the first time. He was short, like most of the men here. And he was very, very skinny. Alarmingly skinny. The way his bones poked through his skin was my main concern until I saw his eyes. I cannot accurately describe the way they jolted my heart, blinking rapidly a few times to ward off the strong sunlight. It was as if all the sadness in the world had been boiled down into two deep condensed brown pools. There was something so raw, so deep, so hungry and so very human in those eyes.

The first thing I noticed was the smell – unwashed bodies, rat and dog urine and well-fermented garbage. It washed over me as I stepped inside. As I entered, my feet stuck a little to the filthy floor with each step; everything was covered in a layer of grime and grease and filled with all types of trash imaginable. The house was devoid of light, save what entered through the open door. You could hear the rustling of rats and the slow shuffle of his feet as he led us to a place to sit and chat. I don’t remember a whole lot of what we talked about, just those burning eyes. He livened up considerably as we talked, but when the time came for us to go, his face fell again. “Don’t worry, we’ll be back.”

We returned regularly in the following months, each visit more or less the same, talking about everything and nothing, the face falling as we passed out the door. But in our visits, we started noticing little changes in C.’s house and in himself. One visit, the window was open; the next, there was less trash, and the house was a little more organized. The next, his hair was combed and his face clean and his bed made. Little by little, he was improving his life himself. His dignity was being restored. Just by existing, being here, taking about insignificant things and passing time with him we showed him he was worthy. By being loved, he could then start to love himself and drastically improve his life and his situation. In his lonliness and pain, he lacked motivation to live, but the simple presence of anotherBUENOS AIRES, Argentina – A few months ago, I became friends with a man who had dramatically marked my views on life and on my mission here. Let’s call him C. He was born into a rich family in the mountains of Paraguay and spent more than a few decades of his life like St. Augustine. That is to say: a lot of alcohol, money and women. Eventually, he wound up here in Buenos Aires and spiraled downward into deep poverty

Before I left on mission with Heart’s Home, I was asked by everyone, “What are you going to do there?” I always answered with a classic line about presence and dignity, to “be” rather than “do.” But in my heart, I hadn’t the faintest idea. Why wasn’t I going to do something, to build, to change? But now I understand a little better, thanks to C. If we had built him a new house to replace the filthy one he has, would it have motivated him to be clean? Or if we had built him a new hospital, would it have motivated him to be healthy? And most importantly, would he have felt loved, or would his eyes continue to burn and burn? It is so beautiful, we come with empty hands and give our hands themselves…and naturally our hearts go right along with them.

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