This afternoon, after work, I spent an hour with a homeless man.
On it’s face, that statement doesn’t appear to be a big a deal, but if you knew my history with homeless people, you’d understand why this was/is such a big deal to me.
It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for the plight of the homeless — it’s just I’ve traditionally kept my distance from homeless persons and chose to support them through donations to organizations that worked directly with them. I’ve had no reason to trust the homeless, as I have not been presented with any reason to do so — until know. That changed when a friend told me about a homeless person he knew living behind a store nearby. But it wasn’t that my friend told me he had helped a homeless person that drew my attention — I know how he feels about helping others. It wasn’t that this homeless person lives behind a large retail store in an affluent city — there are homeless people in all cities. It wasn’t that this individual is so close to where I work that I could have possibly had a chance encounter with him in the past (I haven’t).
It is because now I know his name.
There was something about knowing this man’s name that morphed this story about another homeless man into my own personal quest to help. And really, I knew that was God nudging me to help him. I’ve never been good at following directions, even when I knew they would honor God — but this message was just to vivid to ignore.
So that’s what I did: I helped this man.
On the way to the location I prayed that I would be humble; that I would listen more than I speak; that I wouldn’t try to “fix” anything AND that this encounter wouldn’t be like those of the past.
I paused a distance from his tent, called his name and he quickly appeared and welcomed me to join him. I stood outside his tent and introduced myself as a friend of “so-and-so” and shook his hand. I don’t know why it was important for me to do that; I think I felt compelled to prove to myself that this was a person of value and to prove to him that this was more than a fly-by donation of charity. I asked if he would mind if I spent about an hour with him and offered to help. He didn’t seem surprised that a stranger would seemingly show up at random to visit him. Clearly, the word-of-mouth about his presence had influenced and unknown number of others to offer assistance.
Our mutual friend told me ahead of time that he had a camping stove and portable heater, the kind that use the small 2lb propane tanks. I have several set aside at the house for my Coleman camping equipment, so I brought a couple with me as a gift. They would serve him better producing heat during these cold weeknights than they would serve me sitting on my garage floor. His mood changed to that of excitement at the sight of the propane as he explained he had just used his very last bottle last night.
I wasn’t surprised when he responded, “Just food man,” to my question about how else I could help. I left him for several minutes to drive around the corner and purchase a few cases of various food items. That was probably the best use of my Costco membership to date. His excitement turned to disbelief when I showed up with several large boxes of food. Before leaving I told him he needed “a little something” to last him through the week besides a simple meal at a local fast-food restaurant. Before seeing what I had purchased I wonder if he thought I’d be returning with?
He was especially gracious and quickly poured two cans of soup into a pot on his camping stove. Although homeless, he was surprisingly optimistic and friendly and even asked me if I’d like to stay and eat with him. I declined stating that I wouldn’t be with him much longer as the soup warmed up — but I really didn’t feel like explaining this crazy diet I’m currently on (a story for a different post). I’m embarrassed to admit that I was surprised that he offered me a meal of the food I had just purchased exclusively for him.
Before leaving, I took a moment to pray with him; to pray for him and asked if he wouldn’t mind, I would return the following Monday. He said I was welcome to join him whenever I was in the area and I shook his hand again before leaving his company — uncertain of how I felt about the last hour I’d spent with him or if I’d even blog about it to process those feelings.
In summary, I suppose how I feel is this: A couple years ago I recall hearing a message at church where Andy Stanley said “do for one what you wish you could do for everyone.” A practical message that makes sense, when you hear it — but it’s in the application where the rubber meats the road. I’m uncertain how this will all play out, but I pray that in no small way what I’m doing now is making a difference somewhere.