Judy Knotts is a local mentor, writer, consultant, entrepreneur, and CEO, heavily committed to the spiritual well-being of our community and lifting it higher with grace. We continue to be inspired and motivated by her work with Mobile Loaves and Fishes and other organizations, and through her writing. You’ll find her thought-provoking pieces in the Austin-American Statesman and we are blessed she has granted us the opportunity to share them with you.

“But familiarity breeds compassion and even affection. Quite simply, living side by side you can’t pretend they’re not there”, states Sarah Turnbull, a young Australian woman who immigrated to France. She is referring to the clochards in Paris, who due to medical, financial or familial circumstances live on the streets. According to Turnbull, “The word clochard literally means ‘tramp’… the word originated at the old Les Halles market where a bell or cloche used to toll at the end of every day when it was time to close the stalls…. It became tradition that when the ringing had stopped, any leftovers and overripe produce were given to the homeless and the hungry.” With the famous market gone, soup kitchens, churches, neighborhoods, and individuals have tried to fill the void and feed the homeless in this city of exquisite beauty and world renowned cuisine.   

When visiting Paris, I saw the same faces of poverty that I see in Austin. They don’t assault you, but if you look carefully in doorways in the early morning, or under bridges at night, they are there with their meager belongings often serving as pillows. And we too in Austin try to take care of our own hungry brothers and sisters at Caritas, Angel House, First United Methodist Church or University United Methodist Church, and by the daily truck runs of Mobile Loaves and Fishes.  

Turnbull writes, “I’d never been drawn to any kind of charity work in Australia. But then I’d never seen people sleeping on cold concrete outside my apartment before either; never lived in a place where homeless people were so woven into community life. Sometimes it’s unsettling, privilege and poverty so closely mixed. The disparity is sharpest in winter, when each year several clochards die of cold in Paris. Meanwhile, the shops along Rue Montorgueil fill with the traditional pre-Christmas luxuries.”  We are no different. They die on our streets while we drown ourselves in holiday madness.

On Thanksgiving Day, I drive through the nearly deserted streets of downtown Austin looking for homeless folks who might enjoy a familial favorite –generous slices of roast turkey, homemade stuffing and cranberry sauce artfully balanced between two pieces of bread. After searching I find them wandering alone, mostly, blocks or steps away from some of our fanciest restaurants and shops where holiday lights flicker in every window.  Being an efficient sort, I estimate my personal turkey run should take about an hour.  No big deal, I am delighted that the end of this Thanksgiving outreach is in sight, and eagerly look forward to enjoying my own fat turkey sandwich at home. God, as usual, has other plans.

By 4:30 I finish delivering all of the Thanksgiving bags, tiptoeing past several gentlemen who are dozing in the afternoon sun and am ready to head home. Suddenly an old friend from the streets flags me down. I stop and we sit on a park bench to catch-up. Soon others join us. We laugh, tell family stories, and remind each other how important it is to have friends who care for us. As we visit, the sun begins to set, the air gets chillier, and the bench gets harder. The grackles swarm overhead and even leave a reminder of their presence on my sweatshirt, which my homeless friends notice and enjoy. Just for a moment, I am one of them and at the mercy of the great outdoors!

Surprisingly, as I say good bye to my homeless friends in the rapidly approaching darkness, the homemade turkey sandwiches fade into the background upstaged by heartfelt solidarity. Turnball was right, “familiarity does breed compassion, and even affection.”

As we enter the season of Advent, a time of joy and anticipation for Christmas, where gift giving is often expected and routine, I hope I can recall the lesson these homeless people taught me. The gift of self, the gift of time, the gift of connecting is all that matters. The tangible gift, if there is one indeed, should be a mere symbol of our love for each other. But I should have known this – Christ’s coming was the ultimate gift of self, showing us the way.  

Love this? Read more from Judy here.