He shuffles when he walks…..

He shuffles when he walks and tilts his head up so he can look at you through thick glasses. He’s not tall and is usually heavily laden with clothing, even in hot weather. His beard is scruffy. He is unwashed. And he is homeless.

Around Harrisonburg, he’s a fixture — well, a moving fixture. Sometimes he sleeps on the porch of local college students. Sometimes he comes to Carrier Library to do “research.” During Fridays on the Square, he is an eager volunteer. He often shows up at the Sunday evening service of a local church. “Hello, Phil*,” the congregants greet him.  Despite his disheveled appearance, Phil is part of the Harrisonburg community, every bit as much as the residents of the stately old Victorian homes up and down Franklin and Paul and Campbell Streets.

Phil doesn’t fit the mold. Still, as one Old Town resident told me, “his network of friends is incredible.”  They feed him, provide him a place to sleep. They look after him.

I don’t know Phil’s circumstances, why he is homeless, or his life’s back story. Neither do most of the students who live downtown nor do the residents of the stately old homes. But it doesn’t seem to matter. Phil is a neighbor, a homeless neighbor, but a neighbor nonetheless. He is a also reminder to them that homeless individuals have names, histories, needs. They are not statistics, even though they are often gathered together as such.

I’ve heard it said that Harrisonburg is the perfect size city. For Phil, it seems to be. He is not forced to live over a grate or under a cardboard box; neither is he mocked or preyed upon by those who might take advantage of one with so little worldly wealth and such an unfamiliar societal position. Here, at least in Harrisonburg, he is treated to the kindness of friends.

To the casual observer, especially one who looks at statistics instead of faces, Phil might be deemed a burden, a bother, an inconvenience. After all, in the traditional sense, he hasn’t produced much. He hasn’t cured a disease or rebuilt a community, piloted a successful business or inspired a classroom. To my knowledge, he has not built a bridge or a program or even a committee, as so many students will go on to do during their lifetimes. But he reminds us  that all humanity has worth. He brings a perspective like none other.

Last Saturday while hundreds of students celebrated their JMU commencement, their official launch into successful, conventional and productive lives, Phil was there.  The students called him by name, gave him hugs and high fives. He celebrated with the graduates, as welcomed as the students who sat next to them in classes on international relations, finance or chemistry. He was  part of the Madison Community that day.

Being the Change we want to see in the world doesn’t always mean accomplishing something that is newsworthy. In fact, the operative word is “be,” not change. Anyone can change the world, but few of us are as gifted as Phil at reminding us that life is of little value without each other. It is recognizing the wealth of humanity and seeing the needs of others — the children living in a garbage dump in the Phillipines,  the elderly neighbor no longer able to mow his own grass, the unwed teenage mother with no layette, the laid-off employee without prospects, the college student short on tuition, families caught in war-torn nations, communities recovering from natural disasters, the homeless in our cities.

Kindness is the first step in changing the world, and a whole lot of JMU students and community members who have befriended Phil know this already. Their kindness resonates, not only through Phil’s life, but long and loud in their own. This is how changing the world starts: with heart, with compassion, with the magnanimous acts of kindness that cost us so little.

You can’t get a degree in kindness, but then again, you don’t need one to enrich one homeless man’s life with friendship.

To learn more about another group of students dedicated to meeting the needs of individuals like Phil and many others — students majoring on social work — visit JMU’s website: http://www.jmu.edu/jmuweb/general/news/general11941.shtml
You might also be interested in learning about a JMU student, now an alum, who spearheaded a program to house Harrisonburg’s homeless during the winters. You’ll find it here: http://www.jmu.edu/bethechange/stories/patrickWiggins.shtml
*name has been changed
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About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

2 Responses to He shuffles when he walks…..

  1. tjh says:

    MBG, this might be one of the more profound pieces among the thousands you have written. Thank you. Beautifully done!

    Like

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