Everyday Theology: Humans of New York

Brandon Stanton and the popular blog Humans of New York, are making the media rounds this week. After photographing a student who shared his enthusiastic appreciation for his teacher, Stanton embarked on a photographic campaign to help the Mott Hall Academy in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn raise funds to cover annual trips for students to leave the city and visit Harvard, and to cover the costs of much-needed summer education programs. This blending of philanthropy and photography is brilliant, and shines the light on the manifold impediments faced by underfunded schools.

But this fundraising effort is only a tiny reason why I love the popular photo blog.  Humans of New York is making the world a smaller place. Stanton is introducing us to our neighbors, photograph by photograph. He is challenging our stereotypes and prejudices in these brief, electric encounters. Each photo has a story – stories of ordinary, brilliant people. Stories from strangers that we discover resonate with our own experiences.

Humans of New York reminds us that the thousands – and millions – of “others” who cross our streets and play in our parks aren’t really “other” at all. They are human. They are unique expressions of our own shared humanness – sometimes old and sometime young, sometimes foreign and sometimes familiar. What I love about Humans of New York is that it bridges the gap of our “us’s” and our “thems” in a single, simple photograph. They aren’t just an old couple walking hand in hand, they’re an unlikely pair who’ve been together since 1944.  She isn’t just a woman coming off her hourly-wage shift, she a mother of three working three jobs to put her kids through college with her own college dreams for the future. He isn’t just an inner city school boy; he’s a boy with a dream – a dream to succeed in the face of overwhelming obstacles[1].

The theology of Humans of New York is that there are not Others. There is no “us” and “them” – not really. Our clothes might vary, our dialects lilt and drawl in different rhythms, our dreams and aspirations take us down different paths, but the sum of who we are is the same: we are each of us human. We are we. Human.

Religious ideology is now one of the leading causes of armed conflict worldwide. Intrinsic to ideology is the othering of people – setting one group up as the pure, the chosen, the righteous, while systematically denouncing another group – ultimately insinuating that their otherness makes them somehow less than human. Their stories are not valuable, their dialects unappreciated, their dreams blasphemes. Othering led to the Holocaust. Othering led to the ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosniaks by Christian Serbs. Othering is leading to the systematic targeting of Iraq’s Christians by ISIL.

Humans of New York invites us to see these Others. To see old and young; black, white, and brown, straight, queer, and questioning; retro mod, geek chic, and norm core. We are invited to into the pregnant scene of a life – a whole marvelous life – sliced out and served to us with a face (or a pair of work-worn hands). These Others are more than “other” – they are our neighbors (sometimes quite literally) that we pass on the street day in and day out. They are reminders of the storied lives inside every fellow subway-taker, park-walker, or crosswalk-crosser.

Fear of others tempts us to polarize around ideological lines. Ideology – particularly religious ideology – seeks to entrench the divide of us and them as a way of instilling one identity and making it supreme over all other identities. This requires not knowing those “thems” – and little by little – not seeing them as fully human. The humble theology offered by Humans of New York is to invite us to see an Other and inhale a small breathe of their life, to experience one moment amid the millions of moments, which makes this Other not an Other but a person. A human. In New York.

Image “Brandon Stanton, Union Square”. Copyright Jorge Quinteros. Used by permission under creative commons license.

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[1] Vidal Chastanet is the student whose brief interview launched a fundraising campaign supported by HoNY. At the time of this blog post, they have raised over $1 million for his inner city school. You can read more here.

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One thought on “Everyday Theology: Humans of New York

  1. I was drawn back to this post because the Humans of New York blog recently finished a trip to Pakistan, where it continued its mission of documenting the lives of ordinary folks. In the final post of the series, the author notes that what is usually reported in mainstream media about Pakistan are stories of terrorism and other violence. He continues: “But when those stories are all that we hear, it’s so easy to imagine a world that’s far scarier than it really is. You lose sight of the 99.99% of the world that’s not scary at all. And living in fear can be a dangerous thing. Because if we’re afraid of each other, we’ll never be able to work together to solve our common problems.” What’s amazing to me is how the premise of Humans of New York works even when the people featured are *not* our literal neighbors — but folks on the other side of the globe. All we humans were created b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of Gd).

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