“It will not bother me in the hour of death to reflect that I have been ‘had for a sucker’ by any number of impostors: but it would be a torment to know that one had refused even one person in need. After all, the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25: 31–46) makes our duty perfectly plain, doesn’t it? Another thing that annoys me is when people say, ‘Why did you give that man money? He’ll probably go and drink it.’ My reply is, ‘But if I’d kept [it] I should probably have drunk it’ . . .” ~ C. S. Lewis
It was April, and it was cold. I was exhausted from making the twice daily trek between our home and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. I’d been doing it for two weeks already. While Scott stayed continuously beside our son’s hospital bed, I tried to share my time and attention with our son during his very tough post-op period, and our children at home, waiting for life to return to normal.
As I left the Interstate for the last portion of my early morning drive, I looked ahead. There was another one. A homeless man, standing at the end of the exit ramp, holding his cardboard sign. But suddenly I noticed that there was something different about him. He smiled at the faces in the cars as they passed him by instead of keeping his chin on his chest. I watched him from my place deep in the line of impatient drivers and wondered what his story was. He was a person. Not just a bundled shadow on the side of the road. And there was some kind of hope still alive in his demeanor and even in his movements — a kind of spring in his step that I wasn’t used to seeing.
I had wondered about the homeless in general before and even felt sad for some of them. But mostly what I had felt in the past was an uncomfortable kind of guilty feeling that kept my eyes averted. And maybe I was a little afraid of them. I didn’t want to look at such sadness and try to figure out if I, a daughter of the King, had any responsibility in this “situation.”
But this was different. There was some instantaneous piercing of my heart as I watched this young man. I was filled with compassion and the sudden realization that he was a real fellow human being with parents, a history, some kind of a story that had landed him on that corner.
The light turned yellow. Arghhh! I wan’t going to make the turn this cycle, and I was anxious to get to the hospital and check on our son and give Scott a break so that he could at least go walk around a bit and get a cup of coffee. When I rolled to a stop, I was right beside this man. I looked into his face. He had blue eyes. And immediately I knew! Yes, I definitely did have a responsibility to reach out to this person.
I was thankful that I had some cash with me, because I usually don’t. I rolled down the window, told him good morning (Is that a dumb thing to say to a person living on the street?), and handed him the bills. He smiled with what appeared to be genuine gratitude.
The light changed to green, and I headed to the hospital, but I couldn’t shake what had happened, and I couldn’t forget this young man. Scott and I talked about him, and decided to pray about what we could do.
The next day, I brought hot coffee and stopped to say hello again, amazed that the light seemed to be timed perfectly for me to stop right beside him again.
Our older girls started baking occasional treats for him, and he began to recognize my car and smile and wave when he saw me coming down the ramp. One day, I included with the coffee and brownies, a picture of our family and a note, telling him that we were praying for him; that we cared. The next time I saw him, he had tears in his eyes and told me that he and his wife had no words to express how this note had encouraged them.
He had a wife?? A history and some kind of a story . . .
He said that they were keeping the picture and that each night, they prayed together for our family.
Now I had tears in my eyes.
At the end of his hospital stay, the hospital gave our son a very nice backpack as a gift. He donated his backpack, and our children at home pitched in their money to help purchase toiletries — wet wipes, toothpaste and toothbrushes, tissues, deodorants, etc. — with which to fill the backpack. We included some Kroger gift cards since there was a Kroger in the area where this couple spent most of their time. On my last journey to the hospital to bring our son home, I gave them the backpack and told them that we wouldn’t be coming every day anymore but that we would be watching for them whenever we came for appointments.
That was actually the beginning of a special friendship. With a homeless couple. This friendship lasted for over a year.
We shared meals and stories with them whenever we could. Over Chinese food and hamburgers, they gradually shared their story with us. It was a sad one, and even though it wasn’t their intention, they helped us understand just how complicated and confusing and truly horrible it is to be a typical American family and then lose everything (including your children). And then try to climb back out of that deep, dark hole again.
It made me think. A lot. And it made me shamefully aware of my own pompous attitude and cold heart. It’s really not as simple as, “just get a job” or “go to a shelter.” For one thing, finding a shelter for couples is apparently, almost impossible. They wanted to stay together. Their love for each other and his protective instinct for her were so very obvious. They had only been on the street for a month or so when I first spotted him at the corner that day, and most nights since that time, they had chosen to sleep on the streets rather than to be separated.
We exchanged phone numbers — Scott’s cell number and their number on the government-issued cell phone given to the homeless for emergencies and very limited calling.
At Christmas that year, they were included in our family’s gift shopping list.
One day after lunch, they allowed us to take their picture with Kathryn and put that on our prayer door, and as the months passed, we watched life on the streets begin to take its toll. The spring wasn’t so visible in his step, and although they always greeted us with hugs and smiles, the light that we had first noticed was dimming. It must be so easy to lose hope in the face of such blatant hopelessness day after day and night after night.
Then about a year ago, they called Scott’s phone to ask for some money (the only time they ever asked us for anything the entire time we knew them). They had finally found a shelter that would allow them in as a couple and help them start to get back on their feet, but they needed $60 to get in.
That was our last meeting with them. They have not been back on the streets since that time, and because they (we assume) turned in their government-issued phone, we can’t get in touch with them now. We wonder constantly what happened to them, and their picture remains on our prayer door.
Did they lie to us when they told us their story? Possibly.
Did we ever get “suckered?” Maybe.
Does it matter? Not at all!
Did they see God in our actions? We pray constantly that they did.
Do they have any idea how knowing them enriched our lives and opened our eyes? We certainly hope so.
We look at the homeless in a completely different way now. We try to keep cash in our car now, and keeping a stash of fast food gift cards is also a great way to reach out.
Knowing this couple changed us. I long to reconnect with them someday. I’d like to know that they are healthy and whole now, that they and their children are back together as a family, and that their homelessness is now just a part of their history.
But I don’t write people’s stories. I don’t even write my own story. I have to leave their next chapters to God.
It’s my place to just do what God puts in front of me to do. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is, or if I never know what happens, or if the money I pass to others is wasted, or if I am lied to. That’s not important. God can handle those details.
As Marley’s ghost says in A Christmas Carol:
“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business.”
Good words; good thoughts, Marley, for this blessed Christmas season.