16: Sleeping on the Street

16: Sleeping on the Street

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

Sleeping on the Street

I was standing there, waiting for someone to do something, till I realised the person

I was waiting for was myself.

~Markus Zusak, Underdog

As crazy as it may sound, many Americans will willingly sleep on the street. We’ll trade in our feather-down pillows, duvet comforters, and Sleep Number beds, and pull up a corner of concrete for the latest iPhone, concert tickets, and Black Friday specials. A few hours on the sidewalk is well worth it when the prize is right.

Many Americans will also willingly step up for others when a need arises, regardless of what country they are from. We’ll pull out our credit cards, organize fundraisers, or simply lift up a prayer for people in Syria, Haiti, or Africa. On April 29, 2006, I did both of these as I joined more than 80,000 Americans and others from around the world as we lay our pillows on the street for a Ugandan boy named Jacob.

When I first heard Jacob’s story, I was a junior studying education at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. Jacob’s face was one of many children known as “night commuters,” who fled their homes nightly and walked several miles to sleep in cities’ empty bus stations — all to avoid being enlisted as child soldiers by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. Images of rows and rows of children sleeping restlessly were imprinted in my mind. I was so wrapped up in my studies and social life that I had been oblivious to what was happening around the world, particularly in Africa. Yet when I was introduced to the Invisible Children documentary that highlighted Jacob’s story, I knew I wanted to help in some way.

Naturally, being a college student, I was broke most of the time, so pulling out my credit card wasn’t an option. However, I heard that one night I could join thousands to raise awareness and show my solidarity with Jacob and others like him by sleeping outside in our own Global Night Commute.

As my friends and I made T-shirts for this occasion, I thought about what it would be like to constantly lay my head down in a different place every night and sleep the restless sleep of worry . . . worrying whether my family was okay . . . worrying whether I would be able to escape and survive the following night . . . worrying whether I would someday be forced to carry a gun and kill or be killed.

The Global Night Commute occurred on a beautiful Saturday in early spring. Because most of us still stayed in the dorms, we had obtained special permission from our college to sleep away for this occasion. After prayer, we set out and walked the four miles from our school to our state capitol building. We would sleep across the street from it. We joined young children with their parents, high schoolers with their headphones, middle-aged adults with their careers, retirees with their experience, and fellow college students with a purpose. We were all there to write letters and engage in meaningful dialogue with one another as well as with local news networks. We were all vastly different, yet we were all willingly united in our goal: to protect innocent lives like Jacob’s from being destroyed by violence.

Later, upon watching footage from across the country of that night, I was in awe to see so many who had walked the miles and gone the distance for the children in Uganda. There were people of all ages, races, and demographics. I saw footage of high schoolers dressed in their prom dresses and tuxes walking the miles for Jacob. The Invisible Children organization had even flown Jacob in for this occasion; I smiled when I saw his face on the screen, for it was filled with hope. The slogan, “One American Sleeping on the Streets for One Ugandan,” was adopted by all of us who participated that night.

Needless to say, when I finally laid my head down on the ground that night, I didn’t sleep . . . I couldn’t sleep. The sounds of downtown Lincoln, Nebraska, certainly contributed to this insomnia, but it was more than that. The sounds of America at its finest kept me awake. At that moment, thousands of others across the country were taking a stand by lying down on the streets of cities such as Oklahoma City, Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, D.C.

The next morning after a group photo in front of the capitol building, my friends and I made the trek back to campus. Even though I was tired, my mind was cognizant of many things that early Sunday morning. As the sun stretched its rays between budding trees, and early-morning traffic began pouring down the streets, I thought about Jacob and others like him. I thought about being able to go back to my dorm and go straight to bed while the children of Uganda would still have to sleep on the street that night. I thought about the impact our one-time night commute may have had, and I frowned. What if it didn’t change anything?

But then, I thought about the fact that it did change something: It changed me. I wasn’t the same person I had been . . .. and I’m pretty sure others were not either. We may have only exchanged our cotton comforters for one night, but that one night on the street allowed us to see the kind of America we should be, one where we do pay attention to the hardships faced by others.

~Elizabeth Harsany

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