Dave and I have been attending an Episcopal church in Tucson for the last two years. Our priest, Debra, has had a profound impact on Dave's and my faith. The last few months, after the service, we have participated in a series of workshops called "For God's Sake, Listen!" designed to get us to learn to listen to one another. The first ones were about non-controversial topics (coffee, K-Mart, etc.), but the topics have gotten increasingly more contentious. This past week's topic was on Homelessness. The nature of the forum is we get into groups of 4 - 6 people, write our thoughts, share our thoughts (without any sort of rebuttal from anyone else), then share out about 3 big ideas from the group. At the end of this past week's forum, Debra issued a challenge for us to put our words into action.
Dave and I accepted Debra's challenge to get into action instead of just talking about it. We had a pretty amazing experience on Tuesday (which is "date day" for Dave and me) when we took a few bags filled with water and snacks down to a park near the University and also to a street corner. Instead of doing the typical "roll your window down and hand the bag to someone in need", which I had done on a few occasions in the past, we parked the car and walked over to some people who were clearly in need. I want to start by saying I had "assumptions" that water, a granola bar, and some fresh fruit would be what is best to put in those sacks, but that is MY assumption. We wanted to hear THEIR truth. We had some really amazing conversations with Bernard, Darnell and Cass, who all had unique stories to tell. Bernard has some mental illness issues, but he could stay present with us when we asked, "If we come back here next week, what would be most helpful for you?" He didn't miss a beat. "Jerky....and some blankets" was his answer. He sleeps at the park and has all his goods there with him. Dave is going to give him one of our tents as well so he can keep some of his stuff under one roof. Despite his mental illness, Bernard said he is really good with plumbing and other handy-man types of work. Darnell and his friends said they needed gloves because it gets cold at night. Cass needs a bike, which we took him today. We had a long conversation with Cass about his abuse in his foster home and then how he lost most of the use of his right leg when it was almost broken by people in his group home. He goes to the Gospel Rescue Mission sometimes to sleep, but they can only stay there for a week at a time before they are "kicked out". I asked him how many people give him a hard time about holding out a sign for help when the Carl's Jr. has a "Now Hiring" sign up right across the street. He looked me in the eyes, and he said, "All day...every day". But we learned it is isn't as simple as that, as he needs to get surgery on his hip before he could get a job in which he would stand all day.
Dave and I have not quit talking about them and what we can do to sustain and continue this ministry that truly ministered to us. We are blessed and can't thank Rev. Debra and Church of the Apostles for pushing us out of our comfort zone.
Many years ago, in Niceville, Florida, I was in charge of a ministry at our church called Signs of the Spirit. I called it "sign language on steroids", as the youth learned how to represent a contemporary Christian song through sign singing and a bit bigger movements, in some cases. One of the favorites we performed was Casting Crowns' "If We are the Body". One of the verses talks about a traveler coming into the church, only to find "...the weight of their judgmental glances tells him that his chances are better out on his own". But if we are supposed to be the body of Christ, shouldn't our arms be reaching out to those in need? Shouldn't our feet be going to help those less fortunate than we are?
For once, we put our hands, feet and heart where they were supposed to be, and for that, we are forever blessed.
Tuesday is date day for Shelly and me. I asked her what she wanted to do and her reply was “I want to go and take care packages to the homeless.” After Sunday's "For God’s Sake Listen", we both had a better appreciation for what homelessness meant to others, and it had begun in us a slightly different way to view this real human problem.
So we put together some sacks with water, a granola bar, and some fruit and headed downtown to find some individuals to share them with. As we got closer to the area, my impression was that we were going to just hand them out through the car window as we came upon those that looked like they could use them. Well, Shelly had a different idea. She wanted to go greet them and spend some time talking with them. My insides started churning, as this was not what I had envisioned.
As we neared the park near Speedway and Stone, there were several small groups of folks that appeared to be homeless. We saw one man by himself on the far side of the park, and Shelly said "Let’s start with him". I immediately asked, “Are you sure? I don’t think he looks well and might possibly be talking to someone" even though he was clearly alone. I wanted to just go find someone else who might be a little safer. Shelly said, “You can stay here – I’ll just take this over and you can watch from the car”. Well, I wasn’t going to let her go alone, and I know after 27 years to marriage, that she was going to do it anyway. I told her to wait while I locked my wallet in the car and we could go together, that I would be right behind her, literally right behind her!
As we approached the gentleman, he was busy sorting through his array of what can only be described as garbage in a heap around him. There was some sort of blanket, maybe a tarp, several cardboard flat boxes, empty food containers, papers, etc. I wondered how can anyone live like this. Shelly approached him and began a conversation. He was wearing pajama bottoms, a tattered sweatshirt, a flip-flop on one foot and a sock on the other. He looked as if he had not seen a shower in a very long time. He had been talking to either himself or to someone or something around him. We assumed he was suffering from some type of mental illness.
As Shelly offered him one of the care packages that we had brought, we learned that his name was Bernard. He took the package, then held up one finger while he searched his area. After a minute or so, he came back with an orange that he had in his “home” and gave it to me. Apparently he felt the need to give us something in return. We talked with him for 10 or 15 minutes trying to find out if he was OK, and what could we bring him. He said he could use some beef jerky – food and protein that would not go bad so quickly. Shelly asked how he was going to eat, and he said “God will provide”. We asked, "How do you know?" He looked at us for the first time and said “Well, He sent you”. We looked at each other and both thought the same thing... that his faith was what was keeping him going. He had not only one Bible in his goods, but two! We thanked him for his time and said we would be praying for him.
As we drove home, we talked about meeting him and his situation. That’s when it occurred to me that I don’t think God sent us for Bernard, but He sent Bernard for us.
Many of our assumptions about the homeless were just that – assumptions. Until we took the chance to spend time with them, to listen for God’s sake, did we truly see His presence.
What are your assumptions? How do they typically pan out? Just for today, perhaps we can try to avoid succumbing to our assumptions and rather find out the real truth in an honest manner.