There is a spot right outside the music hall in downtown Belfast that is never without a homeless person sitting outside it. Whoever it may be, their hat or cup is an ever-present reminder for passerby that not everyone is safely tucked into a Housing Executive place and that even in a welfare society, poverty is ever-present. The hats and cups frequently get kicked over and some laugh at the scramble for scattered coins, inspiring an unattractive sense of pity in onlookers.
Scott and Jamie are two boys who drift in and out of Youth Fellowship, depending on whether or not we let the gang of Shankill footballers in or not. Like most of our kids, a full week in school is a victory, a week without fighting is a phenomenon. Scott, at 14, makes a weekly trip to a local bar with £20 to pay off a paramilitary so they won't break his stepdad's knees again. Jamie's dad died suddenly last month and he is still in shock. They smoke, they fight, they don't really know how to handle everything that's been thrown at them in their short lives.
I love these boys with all of my heart. The three of us spent Saturday night dodging wasted twelve-year-olds in city center and hoping no one would recognize the boys as Prod (Happy St. Patrick's Day from Northern Ireland, where few holidays can be celebrated without sectarianism. St. Patty's is the Catholic's turn for control of downtown, July 12th is for Protestants, and stepping on each other's toes is still a no-no). After spending a few hours at Fisherwick's St. Patrick's Day celebration, where the boys got on like a house on fire with the interns, we headed back to catch the last bus. As we approached the music hall, I wondered how the boys would react to the homeless man. We had already had a fairly in depth discussion about the massive amounts of Eastern European immigrants in Belfast, many of whom sell a magazine in a setup much like Seattle's "Real Change" program. The boys were annoyed that they couldn't walk a single block without getting harassed to buy the magazine, relating a story of how they had blown off a Romanian woman, loudly and harshly, as she approached them to sell a copy. So as we neared the hall, I began to get nervous that something would happen between them and the homeless guy, who was picking up 10p coins out of the cracks in the wet sidewalk.
But without appearing to think twice, the boys were filled with compassion for the man. "It got tipped," Jamie murmured. "Someone kicked it." He knelt down to help refill the man's overturned cup. Scott gave him a pound and shook his hand. These boys have hardly a cent to their name, and my mind flashed back to a few weeks ago, when my dad was here. When we dropped Scott off after YF, he had gotten out of the car to shake his hand and look him in the eye. Scott wasn't sure how to react at the time, as there had probably never been a incident in recent history when someone had made the effort to do that. And here he was, imitating the same maneuver with someone else.
The Hawthorne Effect states that everything changes as soon as it is observed. I'm not so naive to think that the boys weren't, at least in part, trying to act in the way they knew I'd want them to. But I also know that words and observation have the power of self-fulfillment, and that when kids who have hardly ever been encouraged learn that they are being watched with eyes that see the best in them, they will live up to such an image. The Effect works both ways, and it kills me to see how many kids around here are living up to the negative pictures of themselves that others have painted for them.