I grew up in a suburb that lies between two small cities, Akron and Canton. It would be fairly accurate to say that I’ve lived a sheltered life. I know about the woes of the world, but I have not been confronted with many of them face-to-face. Because of my faith background and personal desire to help, I have volunteered for some non-profit organizations that assist those in need. I ignorantly assumed that those experiences had taught me most of what I needed to know about poverty, but my trip to Rome showed me otherwise.
I knew that there were many beggars in large cities, and far more than I had ever seen in downtown Akron or Cleveland. I was expecting to see poor and homeless people, but no expectation could have prepared me for how sad it was to actually come in contact with these people. They stationed themselves on trains and in train stations, outside of churches, and in the streets. They carried cups or baskets and would either hold a sign describing their plight or plea longingly at you as you passed. At first, I found myself overcome with guilt at the sight of all of them. I felt so decadent travelling to another country for what was more or less a vacation when they could hardly afford a meal.
What caused even more of a stir in my heart, though, were the beggar children. Little boys or girls with ratty clothes and forlorn eyes would make rounds on train cars or in between church pews, often silently staring at you in an effort to fill their paper cups. I felt sorry for these children. What kind of parent sends their child out to beg for them? It just doesn’t seem right or ethical. And what would happen to the child if he or she did not get as much money as the parent wanted them to? Would there be consequences? These children pulled my heart in opposite directions. On one hand, I was so disgusted with their parent that I did not want to give them money. On the other, I felt such pity for the child that I felt I absolutely needed to give them a few euros just so they could have a meal that night.
As the weeks wore on I felt less and less pity for the beggars. I would ignore their cries and signs and think, “Oh, they’re probably just scamming us.” I had become so desensitized to their needs that I was hardly ever touched by their situations. When I realized what happened I became ashamed. How could I forget the values that had so called me to service at home? Was I really going to disregard the morals I once upheld because I had come into contact with more poverty than I had ever seen before? That was unacceptable; I needed to help them somehow.
I wish I could say that I gave aid to every beggar I met. On the last day, I had a fair number of euros left over so I gave most of it to people on the streets, but the idea to do this was not even my own. Thinking about this still disgusts me. I had always considered myself a generous person, but I flaked out when confronted with a true opportunity to give. One of the many things this trip inspired me to do is to make up for my selfishness. I don’t know how or when, but I will reconcile this. I will not serve to satisfy my own conscience, but because these people need help. Maybe that was part of the problem before – I was serving for the wrong reasons. Now I know what poverty looks like, and I cannot ignore it. Italy taught me about the decadence and sweetness of life, but it also taught me about its trials. I am connected to these people by our shared existence and humanity and I do not intend to forget that ever again.