A Tale of Two Cities by George Merrill

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This is a tale of two cities: Baltimore, Maryland and Seoul, South Korea. It’s a story I tell in the spirit of Thanksgiving.

The story involves two young girls from places worlds apart. Nell is six – she was born and lives in Baltimore. Chloe, is nineteen and lives in Vermont. She was born in South Korea. Nell and Chloe don’t know each other. Chloe’s mom told me Chloe’s story. Nell’s grandma told me Nell’s.

One day her mom went with Nell, her baby brother and some friends to the Baltimore Aquarium. It was cold and rainy. An outing with young children was just the thing for the day. They spent the morning at the Aquarium and decided to stay around the Inner Harbor long enough to have lunch. They chose a place along Pratt Street. In the restaurant, they were seated next to a large floor to ceiling window where they could watch the bustling crowds outside walking by in the rain. Nell is, gregarious, a people watcher and contemplative.

Just outside the window a man sat in his wheel chair in the rain. He had a sign indicating that he needed help. People kept passing him by, no one giving him so much as a glance.

Nell became fascinated with the man in the wheel chair and she watched him intently. She soon asked her mom: “Why does everyone walk by like they don’t even see him?” Mom tried her best to answer Nell’s question. She described how there were people who had nowhere to live, no job and didn’t have a mother or father or anyone to look after them.

Nell was surprised that he had no parents. That was an unthinkable thought.

Soon Nell was asking a lot of questions, one of which she reiterated several times: “Why is it that when all the people pass by they don’t see him.” That seemed to trouble her more than anything, even more than the man sitting outside in the cold and rain. Mom explained to Nell that he might be needing money or food since homeless people often had no resources of their own. He was sitting there with his sign hoping someone would come to help him.

It’s a frightening thing to consider that we can be invisible to others.

Nell said, “I can give him some of my food.”

“Don’t open the bottle of water on the table,” she urged mom while she gathered some food from her plate and found another plate to put food on. They all went out together to give the man food and water. At first Nell was intimidated by how worn and unkempt he appeared. She hesitated for a moment. Nell then offered him the plate of food and the water. He, too, appeared uncertain, but after a moment took it.

Then he looked directly at Nell and said, “Thank you,” and turning his head to her baby brother, said, “Hi there’ big fella.” Nell looked directly at the man.

Mom, Nell and baby brother then went on their way. Nell’s attention wandered somewhere thinking the thoughts that children entertain.

Some years ago, far from Baltimore, Chloe’s adoptive parents took her and her younger sister back to South Korea in search of their roots. Her adoptive mom describes Chloe as ‘comfortable in her own skin, content with herself.’ She’s confident. As a small child, she exhibited a compassionate disposition, eagerly volunteering in her community to read for disenfranchised children and assisting in health services for the homeless. Chloe is a feeder. Once she hoped to be a nurse.

The family stayed at an upscale hotel in Seoul and for the first week toured the city. Like Baltimore, the city bustles. The whole family was struck by the apparent affluence of the city. The hotel was located directly above the subway. On their first subway trip, Chloe saw the shadow side of the apparently opulent Seoul. Homeless and disenfranchised men and women sat along the walls of the station platforms, begging. Chloe, not unfamiliar with homelessness, was troubled to see it in Seoul’s subway. Perhaps she wished for a more compassionate world in her own native land? I don’t know.

“Why are they there?” she’d ask. “Is there anyone who cares enough to look after them?” The experience rocked her. Neither Nell in Baltimore nor Chloe in Seoul could understand how what they were seeing could happen. Inequality is a timeless and troubling matter. In various forms, it appears worldwide.

Chloe quickly mobilized. The classy hotel they stayed in had health and beauty packets in the bathrooms which contained generous amounts of personal toiletry items. Chloe began collecting them. On her trips to the subway station she would issue them to the needy recipients, bowing to each respectfully in the manner Koreans offer their salutations.

A food court at the hotel offered quality Korean food. Chloe soon concluded that these subway residents needed good cooked meals more than a beautician. With her parents help, Chloe bought takeout food to bring to her new charges. Again, in her trips she delivered the food ceremoniously, bowing in salutation and being bowed to in greeting. They saw each other, the way Nell and the man in the wheel chair had. Neither remained invisible to the other.

Offering hospitality to the stranger is perhaps the most ancient of all the world’s social customs. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,” ancient scripture exhorts us.

Do you suppose that when we entertain the stranger, we flip the ancient equation; that by entertaining the stranger, we become the angels?

Wishing you every blessing for Thanksgiving.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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