Alyssa Sellers

Lessons of Love: Start with a Smile




Downtown Portland is filled with people who want something from you.

They want your name on a petition, they want you to buy their new product, they want you to sign-up to support an international child or an environmental cause, they want your money for a Tri-Met pass, dog food, beer, weed, human food, a hostel, etc., or they want you to repent and follow their Jesus who hates a long list of people groups they have proudly printed on their sandwich boards and canvas signs.

Residents of this economically diverse neighborhood will encounter at minimum three requests a day for something from them. Consequently, residents of this neighborhood don’t look up. They don’t make eye contact. They don’t engage with one another.

Sometimes this is because they feel guilty that they can’t solve all of the problems of the people they encounter. Sometimes it’s because they are tired of being bothered and would like to simply go to work and return home without multiple strangers nagging them. Whatever the reason, the majority of the 20,000 people in the blocks north of Burnside and south of the 405 return home to single occupancy dwellings with feelings of isolation and numbness.

Many earn decent livings and unlike their neighbors on the street who hear about the story and experience the love of Jesus at almost every free meal or night-time necessity give-away, these members of the middle-class mass go about their day mostly unnoticed. This isolation leads to feelings of worthlessness and insecurity. Insecure people don’t smile or greet other people and if you don’t greet people, you don’t meet people and you feel alone and isolated. It’s a vicious cycle. Emotionally, it’s sometimes hard to live here in the tall buildings where no one knows your name. It’s hard even to smile here. Being one of those single occupancy dwellers myself, I really get it.

Yet, every day when I leave my apartment, I try to smile at everyone I meet. About 25% smile back. Most don’t make eye contact and the faces of ones that do show an obvious struggle with comprehending what just happened. It’s as if their brains are processing this human interaction for the first time. The first time a human has given them a kindness with no desire for reciprocity.

I’ve been a part of this neighborhood for almost 10 years and it makes my heart hurt seeing so many people unable to accept this gift of love when it comes to them freely. This gift of love is from my Jesus, the one who doesn’t hate anyone, but instead loves everyone with an everlasting, extravagant, pure love. A love that says you are not forgotten, you are not abandoned, you are not alone.

Over these 10 years I’ve volunteered with various organizations focused on reaching out to the students at Portland State University, a campus centered in this neighborhood. I’ve had students tell me they go entire days and never have a conversation with a single person. They don’t know their classmates; they don’t know the person who sits next to them on the park bench or the bus seat. They don’t say, “Hello” or smile, mostly because when they have in the past, the recipient has seized that openness as an opportunity to ask them for something.

My friends and I have tried to find ways of letting students and other members of this neighborhood know that they are loved freely and without condition. For a couple of years we gave away free hot chocolate one day a week and had a giant picnic with grilled meat and veggie burgers one day a year. This year at the end of each university term we gathered donations and created fun packs filled with snacks and other items for finals. Students take one for themselves and four more for friends in their classes. I take the left over packs and give them away as I walk around campus.

Honestly, the 30 kits we create are a drop in the bucket compared to the 30,000 students that go to this school but to the 30 students who get them they mean a great deal. One extremely grateful student said that this was the first random act of kindness she had ever received.

Walking down SW Broadway I smiled at two students wished them good luck on their finals and handed them fun packs. They grudgingly took the packs and looked inside them as they continued down the sidewalk. From a full block away, these men turned around and enthusiastically yelled, “Thank you so much! This is awesome!”

In a neighborhood where people standing beside you won’t smile, these two, having received a gift with no strings attached, turned and yelled their thanks from a block away.

Living downtown one often hears yelling from blocks away but it’s usually angry and full of profanity. Never is the yelling full of joy and gratitude. As an example, a couple of years ago while walking past the food carts on SW 10th Avenue a woman turned around and began yelling at me, letting me know that she was going to F$%^#  kill me for what I did to her in prison. To be clear, I have NEVER been to prison, nor have I ever met this woman before.

I looked her in the eye, smiled, and said, “OK,” then I walked away in prayer that all her hurts would be healed and that someone more trained than I would come and help her.

This is where I live, among tall buildings filled with other beggars, yellers and avoiders, learning a never ending lesson of love.

And I practice that lesson every day as I walk the city blocks with my head up, looking people in the eye, smiling a smile that tries to say, “I see you. You matter. I don’t want anything from you, but I do want you to be truly happy, I do want you to know pure, good love. Please accept this gift and have a fabulous day.”

I realize that’s a lot to convey in one smile, but I think it’s a good start.

“Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”
― Mother Teresa


2 thoughts on “Lessons of Love: Start with a Smile

  1. you made me smile… keep smiling!


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