I thought about piling on and joining the State of the Union circus that will be broadcast into the homes of countless millions of Americans. But after a pause and some contemplation, I decided to chart a course away from the carnival in Congress that will be on display this evening. Instead of counting the broken ways of our government, I opted to do something all together different.
Here is what I know to be true. What is missing more than anything else in this time of divisive politics and hateful rhetoric is the simple act of listening to one another. In the rush to prove ourselves right, we trample over others and cut-off the very conversations that could mend the brokenness of society that most of us rail against. So today, instead of talking about the State of the Union and reveling in the pomp-and-nothingness of our politics, how about we discuss the state of our souls and share our stories with one another?
To this end, I’m going to take a moment to share with you my own story and how I traveled from demanding exclusive justice to desperately seeking inclusiveness in my heart. Even though I’ve decided to give to God the full scope of my journey that led me from privilege to indigence, there are aspects I will recount not to garner pity but to hopefully inspire others who are burdened by the same sorrows that I once endured.
Four years ago, I lost everything. After my job at a “preeminent consulting firm” was terminated in March of 2014—the same company that once employed Edward Snowden—I spent a year acting less my age and more like a teenager. The first couple of months had me stressed, but after interviewing for a litany of jobs and being met by rejection each time, I made the fateful decision to cash out my 401K. My saunter down misery lane started the day I received a check from Schwab in the mail.
I’ve worked throughout my life, my first gig upon immigrating from Ethiopia in 1982 was shoveling snow that winter. I made $20 in two hours only to waste all of that money on video games and McDonald’s within a week. As much as I enjoyed the fries and milkshakes, it was not the money that stirred my imagination. I wanted to emulate my father more than anything else; he worked tirelessly to provide for his family only to pass away before he could see his first grandchild—he is still my first and foremost hero even though he is no longer with us. Throughout my teenage years and beyond, I worked at an endless procession of jobs. This trait I picked up from my dad followed me into my college years, I attended classes in the morning and worked odd jobs in the evening.
After graduating, I got my first job at Sprint working as a telecommunications technician. From that moment on, I worked full time without interruption until I suddenly lost my job at the age of forty. For more than eight months, I had enough reserves to live without worry and partied as though I was dating one of the Kardashians. All the sudden, life devolved into the abyss. A mix of bad business decisions and adversity that came knocking at my door led me to homelessness. The line between complacency and privation is thinner than the air in the Himalayas—all of us are but a few bad breaks and missed paychecks away from pavement beds.
The pains of failure and the shame of destitution led me away from Virginia, a state I called home since I arrived in America. A dear friend paid for my bus ticket and soon enough I found myself on a coach to South Carolina. With nothing but the clothes on my back and a camouflaged backpack I bought with the little money I had, I went into exile away from familiarity and trekked towards bleak uncertainty. It was on the Greyhound bus that I ran into my first second.
Sitting by myself contemplating my life, a fellow passenger snapped me out of rumination when he sat in the empty chair next to me. Desperate to find answers and seeking a solution to my anguish, I immediately noticed the cross that was dangling on the stranger’s neck. For most of the trip, we did not speak to one another. However, somewhere in North Carolina, sensing my consternation I guess, he asked me how I was doing.
For some reason, I was moved enough to tell him my circumstance and confided in a man I’ve never met the hardships I was facing. Instead of ignoring me or offering some empty gesture of concern, he spent the better part of two hours telling me about his own struggles. He was a Marine who was deployed in Iraq and saw the gruesome face of war up close and personal. He was a sniper—the horrific memory of his successes continually riddling his mind with dread and guilt.
He then pulled open a bible and told me that he found respite from turmoil by seeking answers outside of himself. He asked me if he could read a verse to me, I gladly consented. He then read Ecclesiastes 4:9-12:
“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor. If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
Instead of piously preaching to me or trying to convince me of the supremacy of his beliefs, he simply walked next to me and let me know that I was not alone. At that exact moment, his act of compassion meant more to me than any amount of money someone could have given me. While many are being conditioned to think that tithing is about money, I realized right then that the only tithing that matters is giving kindness and encouragement to one another.
Earlier I mentioned that this stranger who sat next to me was my first second. I used to say all the time—before I earned the wisdom to know what it meant—that the most important person in any revolution is not the first person with the idea but the second person who believed in her. That day, I understood what I used to say as a tagline, it takes a second person to pull us out of tribulation and woes.
For the next two years, I traveled state to state as a homeless sojourner. After staying in Greenville for seven months, I roamed across America—each time living at a mission or a homeless shelter. From Miracle Hill Rescue Mission in Greenville to Des Moines Hope Ministries to Nashville Rescue Mission to Fort Collins Rescue Mission, I bounced around from state to state with hopelessness and ennui as my twin companions. After staying at the Fort Collins Rescue mission for a month and half, I transitioned to Harvest Farm in Wellington, Colorado where lived rent-free and worked in the kitchen as a cook. From earning six figures as an Associate at Booz Allen, my weekly paycheck was all the sudden a $7.00 gratuity given to residents. Irony of life, I finally found the purpose that always eluded me when I hit skid row.
The reason I am here writing this story and sharing my passage from despair to renewal is because of the countless seconds I encountered for two years who kept believing in me even as I lost all hope. The seconds in our lives are endless, all of us can be the second person who believes in someone and all of us can use a second person to believe in us. Our lives are intertwined, we can have profound impacts on one another and change the trajectory of people’s lives without knowing it.
We change the world not with big bangs and revolutions but through incremental and small acts of kindness. We should not treat people on sidewalks like lepers to be avoided but as fellow humans who need compassion more than condemnation.
But for the grace of God go all of us. I don’t say that for effect for I too was once on the very streets that countless numbers of Americans call home. Poverty is a dark hole, one which is very hard to emerge from. Once people spiral into that abyss of homelessness, the woes multiply. How can a man get a job if he can’t list an address on applications? How can a woman go to an interview if she has no place to clean up and her clothes are unkempt? These dire issues are but the tip of the iceberg that gash the lives of the homeless and sink them into the ocean of cyclical destitution. But we can do our part by imparting kindness to those who need it the most. In the process, we ourselves find reward—charity is an act that redeems the giver as much as the receiver.
After all, it was my encounter with a seven year old “white” girl named Sam, who was living among society’s invisible statistics during my stay at the Greenville Rescue Mission, that made me disavow sectional causes. After seeing a child calling a homeless shelter home and her parents struggling to protect her from this world’s cruel blows, I could no longer stand for few and decided to stand for all. My antagonistic approach towards justice was washed away amid the tears I cried for a child condemned to poverty before she was old enough to know the difference. These are the lessons, taught by the Professor Affliction, that is the ink in my pen and inspires me to do videos like the one below that I put together while I was homeless in Colorado.
I present this article before you not to preach at you or to evangelize, my faith is personal and I have no interest in trying to convince others that they are wrong when I am struggling every day to do right. I write this to present an alternative to the pervasive discord that poisons our souls; in the process, I hope to spark hope in someone that is desperately seeking it at this moment. The picture above is of a mother carrying a child, the same way that she is carrying her child, her child will one day care for her. We are all each others second #BeSecond Click To Tweet
Thank you to all social workers, homeless shelter employees, advocates for the poor, volunteers who go out of their way to give to others and everyone involved in bettering the lives of the broken. The recognition might be few but the reward is eternal.
Sometimes the music dies only for the ballad of life to come soaring back to life. You see, while I was wrapped in the cocoon of loneliness, my greatest second is the one that guided me out of desolation. It was Betty Beke who convinced me to stop writing on Facebook and to start the Ghion Journal instead. She saw the diamond in me that was covered up by the dust of indigence. Over the ensuing months, separated by distance and circumstances, what started as a friendship blossomed into something I never expected. On May 5th, 2018, I ended up marrying the woman I called Birabiro (butterfly) the very first day I met her. Life is poetic, my last name means “my love” in Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia); the very love I gave up on found me when I stopped looking for it.
Life is hard; from prince to pauper and all in between, all of us are eventually touched by the cruel finger of dejection—no one can escape grief. Yet, in the very places of our brokenness grows resilience. The struggles we endure eventually become the sources of our strength. Let us dedicate ourselves to being kind to one another and letting the light of compassion, instead of the fire of antagonism, guide our hearts.
None are greater than others; we are all greater when we love and are kind to each other::
If you were moved by this article and want to be second to others who need it, consider donating to Harvest Farm, the same place I resided for more than a year, and give some hope to those who need it the most. Click HERE or on the picture below to donate. Thank you and be kind to yourself and others.
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.
Latest posts by Lij Teodrose Fikremariam (see all)
- A Matter of Life or Death: We Cannot Afford to Ignore Mental Illnesses Any Longer - August 17, 2019
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- Why am I a “Person of Color”? - July 26, 2019