The Not So Secret Lives of the Humans of New York

Humans of New York (HONY) is a beautiful corner of the world of Facebook and the internet. HONY it seems started out as a photography project in NYC to photograph the people inside the island’s packed concrete jungle but quickly took on a life of it’s own. The photographer decided to start to interview the people being photographed and alongside their portraits include a short quote or story about the life of the person. Now, 6 years later from it’s inception, HONY now has, “over twenty million followers on social media, and provides a worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers on the streets of New York City.”

And I love it.

Every picture with cracked and dirty hands, tired eyes, exuberant smiles, and pensive stares draws the viewer, even if for a moment, into the lives of these humans. Some stories may be stores of victory and thankfulness while others may be ones of loss and suffering. Some may be about promotions at work or families reunited and others about a death of a family member or uncertainty of how they will make it another day.

And I can feel it.

Real Life Stories

One of HONY’s latest pursuits, in the month of May, was to follow the heart-wrenching stories of the patients of the Pediatrics Department of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Everyday my newsfeed among the flood of political diatribes, selfies, and “what I ate last night” pictures, one of a young child or a parent would come up. The child was sometimes pictured in their hospital room amid an assortment of hospital equipment. Sometimes their parents will be around him or her, comforting them in what must be an unbearable amount of pain and confusion.

They tell their stories about the day they found out and what life was like after that. They talk about their hopes and dreams. They confess their anger and their resentment. They talk about the unknown and faith and how for the first time they have come together. They offer words of advice, wise words only found in the trenches.

And it hurts.

The Response

And the people who follow the stories respond. All over the word people flood these stories with words of encouragement, prayer, and everything in between. Thousands of comments come from people who have never met but whose lives have suddenly intersected via a screen.

In the latest update I could find, over 90,000 people donated over $3.4 million to aid in research and care for the children at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. That is truly amazing. People become invested but not just monetarily. They send letters, like real letters, with words of encouragement. Their own children draw cards and send them, encouraging in ways only kids can in ways only kids understand.

And yet I am encouraged

What HONY has helped steward is remarkable and that is most likely an understatement. This platform for the happy and the hurting has served millions in so many unique and untold ways. It’s reach will continue to affect millions, even those who are unaware of it’s online presence, in the lives of people who experienced kindness beyond the norm; at sacrifice for others.

And I have been reminded of a few things because of it.

The Reality of Reality

The now not-so-secret lives of these Humans of New York has brought to the surface a reality; life is best lived with people. What I mean is that it is very easy to live your life around people but not with people. We interact and are around people constantly everyday but how many of us would we say are living with and not just around? How many of us could say we feel a sense of deep commitment to not just be around people but to be part of their lives?

Relationships can easily be built around what the other person can give rather than what we can give them. My relationship with my barista, for example, is based on what they can give me – a coffee. As soon as that need is not met, for whatever reason, we will find another “relationship” to do so. That’s transactional. In the same way, we can easily slip into these patterns with our neighbors, friends, family, coworkers and so on. This is living “around” people. It doesn’t cost much and it is primarily contingent on my need.

On the other hand, living “with” people requires much more; it demands a cost of some kind. Whether that is time, money, or resources, living with people is an investment in them in their context: It costs much. It gives much. It cares much. That’s not transactional; it’s relational. HONY helps bring this to light. These people who support the page and it’s mission have given up something to support these people, albeit maybe not much in comparison, but something was given. And that is a beautiful thing.

But this leads me to a bigger truth.

What Would Jesus…?

Jesus spoke about this so clearly it is unavoidable if you take him seriously. Jesus explained that a life following his is a life at cost (Matthew 16:24-27). Even Jesus came to live at cost; “to give his life for many” and to “not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). This is a staggering thought and one that has been only more convicting as I have gotten older. It is only staggering because the one who deserved all gave himself over to give to those who have nothing everything.  Jesus said to, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, and you will be blessed.” (Luke 14:13-14.)

Last night, John Oliver of the The Last Week Tonight exposed the serious problems with debt collection in our country. What was interesting is instead of just exposing it and explaining why it is so wrong, they acted on it. John Oliver created a fake debt collection agency, bought $15 million dollars worth of debt and unlike the rest of the agencies, forgave the debt. It is now the biggest TV show giveaway ever done in the history of TV but its even more than that. There is more “Jesus” in that then we might see at the surface and a clear picture of the gospel, in one way, in action.

It should make a pause, if just for a moment, to wonder what it would be like if the church got more serious about helping those in need. What would the view of Christians be in the neighborhoods around us if they were people known for their generosity, grace, and forgiveness? What picture would people get of Jesus if His followers used all of their resources to help those in need around us? Scripture described the early believes as people who were, “held in high regard” (Acts5:13). If that isn’t enough, pure religion is defined within Scripture as one that acts and moves towards those who are in need (James 1:27)

What picture would people get of Jesus if His followers used all of their resources to help those in need around us? Click to Tweet

Are we up to it? Are we ready to be a agent of change, forgiveness, and grace in our world or are we content to keep people at a screen’s distance?

Greg Smith

Blogging about faith, life, church, and everything in between.

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