The “60 Minutes” Rule

Freedom Trail path on a red brick sidewalk in ...

For the past 6 years I have worked as a public health nurse in state government, promoting health access and prevention in under-served communities.   There is a rule in state government; unspoken but implicitly understood: The ‘60 Minutes‘ rule.  If anything you’re doing could end up on 60 minutes then you may want to reconsider the wisdom of the activity.  The last thing the state wants is a front page news article on questionable activities of one of their employees.

This crossed my mind last week as I walked to the subway heading home from work.  It was mid-week, cold, and I was reasonably excited to get home.  The area  where I work is in a fairly congested part of Boston.  While no comparison to larger metropolitan areas, for the city of Boston this stretch is busy and densely populated. Located right on the Freedom Trail, 2 blocks from Boston Common and one block from the historic King’s Chapel the area sees a variety of colorful personalities daily. Dark-suited white-collar bankers get coffee along side construction workers. Students of all ages from all over the world bump into ever-present tourists with vague lost looks on their faces, and always the homeless. No one really thinks about it – the homeless are just there, like guards at every street corner, carrying cups for spare change.

As I quickly walked, dodging people and vendors, there in the middle of the sidewalk was a woman who’s back was to me.  She was small and thin with long hair, greying both from age and circumstance.  A sign hung from her shoulders down her back, the words “Hungry, Homeless, Diabetic, Neuropathy” written in large red magic marker.  I passed by thinking about something far more pressing in my world and at the end of the sidewalk stopped.  I suddenly realized what I had witnessed and ignored.  Her legs were black from disease, open sores showing above a bandaged area, she was shaking in the cold, and we were all pretty much avoiding her.  No lets change that: I was pretty much avoiding her.

The ’60 Minutes’ story flashed through my brain:

“Nurse travels 10,000 miles to help flood victims in Pakistan but ignores homeless woman on doorstep”.

It was a distressing headline to see, it was even worse when it went from my head to my heart.  How was I going to defend my actions and my apathy when faced with a headline that damning?

The end of the story is that I did go back – I wish it hadn’t taken the egotistical fear of being publicly caught and shamed.  I’m hopeful that next time it won’t. “Truly what you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did unto me”.

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8 thoughts on “The “60 Minutes” Rule

  1. Thanks for the reminder of our personal and collective responsibility to hurting homeless people. Perhaps our problem is not insensitivity, but feeling our own helplessness in the face of such overwhelming need. I often felt that way in Pakistan. Once when we were visiting the Hovers in Umerkot, Carol and I went out for an evening walk outside the village. We met a woman and stopped to chat. She pulled a chunk of some kind of a drug out of her dupatta and put it in her mouth. Carol spoke to her about God and his love, and that she really needed to know Him. Her reply: “If God would ever fill my stomach for once, I wouldn’t need this.”
    I never forgot that. How can we talk about God and his love to people who are hungry and homeless? Yet some of them by His grace do see His love, and it’s most often through compassionate people just doing the little that they can. A very challenging read is the book “Under the Overpass” by Mike Yankowski, the story of 2 college students who “journeyed as homeless men for five months.”
    Keep up the good work, you’re challenging me every day.

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  2. Maybe all those reasons. In my case, I find refugees or displaced people far easier because their stories are easier. It is easier for me to care for someone who was displaced by a flood then someone displaced from an addiction. It is my “assumption filter” and in that way it is from my heart. I think you’re insight on time is good – when time is blocked out as in a trip for relief work there is one focused task, usually without interruption .
    Thanks for the comment and keeping the conversation going.

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  3. This story rings so true!

    Why do you think this happens though? I don’t think it’s a matter of the heart, as such. It’s clearly not that you’re indifferent to the suffering of others. Is it because in the city that person is just one in thousands in a range of situations from absolute destitution to flowing riches. And we don’t, can’t, give close attention to every one of them long enough to discover if (or in which way) they’re in need.

    In Pakistan those in need are a distinct, clearly identifiable group. And your time commitment is also clearly marked out. So maybe time is the other element in the city (

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  4. I love the picture you give with that first sentence. I had never thought of them as filters but you are absolutely right. I think it was Becky Pippert years ago where I first heard the phrase “Pray that God will heal your eyesight” in regard to the world around us.
    Thanks so much for the comment.

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  5. It is troubling that our minds and eyes become filters that block out these harsh realities. Our natural self-interest and propensity to limit our empathy to friends and family is almost reflexive. Thanks for letting God work through you so visibly!

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