A couple of weeks before the field trip to Skid Row by our Spiritual Leadership class, I happened to encounter a young beggar in the middle of the financial district in downtown L.A., where I got off a Metro bus. Skyscrapers stood on both sides of the street. The boy begged me for change or food. I did not have any cash money —except my bus fare to return home— in fact, I had to withdraw money from ATM. Thus, instead I gave some snacks I always carry. He deeply thanked me and explained that he had been roaming around this area for two hours and could not get any food. Since I was looking for an ATM of my bank, I asked him if he knew one nearby. He said yes and kindly escorted me to the machine a couple of blocks away. On our way there, I asked him again if he had a safe place to sleep. He said no, and showed me a big scar on his hand, unwrapping the gauze. He also showed me a wound on his throat. He explained that both injuries were made when someone attacked him with a knife just because he begged some food. He was a Caucasian homeless. I said goodbye to him just around the corner of Pershing Square, where our classmates met for field trip later.
In fact, Skid Row and homeless people themselves were nothing new to me because I regularly use public transportation and sometimes transfer buses in the middle of Skid Row. Therefore, in the class project, I was rather interested in my classmates reactions such as what they would think seeing those homeless people. When I visited Skid Row for the class project, some classmates mentioned that in terms of ethnic demography of the homeless population, African-Americans were significantly dominant in the area. Nonetheless, to tell the truth, I did not pay much attention to the ethnic ratio until the classmates referred to. To me as a foreigner, they are just the same “Americans” whether they are Black or White, rich or poor. Thus, it was interesting for me to observe was how seriously my American classmates would include/exclude those marginalized people in their identity as American.
As I anticipated, some students showed —probably unconsciously— an attitude: “I am totally different from those homeless people.” To my surprise, however, two of the classmates said impressive comments. One student pointed out the narcissistic pride of many Americans who close their eyes on the reality —extreme economic inequality in the U.S. She seemed to regard extremely poor people as a part of the same American population. She even seemed to feel ashamed of it rather than expressing superficial sympathy.
The other student said to me when we were walking back from Skid Row: “I was once almost there.” She confessed that in her youth she experienced economic hardships. She as well seemed to regard the homeless people there as the same as herself. I myself have an experience of being socially marginalized. Thus, I am well aware how much courage she needed to acknowledge her own sufferings in front of classmates.
In terms of the poverty problem, compassion is the basis of any solution. Besides, the essence of compassion is to regard people in need as the same as ourselves. Contrary, the opposite concept to compassion may be greed in this context. No doubt America is one of the most highly competitive societies in the world. Every single day people are busy pursuing money, power, and fame to make themselves look more attractive than others. Consequently, people tend to forget to be content with what is already given to them. Not to mention that they also forget compassion because it does not appear to increase their wealth at all. Instead, they pathetically keep craving more than they need for survival. In fact, some billionaires are said to have saved so much money that they couldn’t spend it all even if they had hundreds of years.
Of course, we cannot eliminate the greed of the rich or suffering of the poor in a day or two. However, if we forget compassion we will deserve criticism because compassion is what makes a human, human. Fortunately, I was able to observe sincere attitudes concerning the economic inequality problem in the U.S. —in at least some of my classmates. For me this field trip became a beneficial experience to know compassion in America.