The stop light turned green, and I started across the city street rolling my carry-on suitcase. I was following my GPS through downtown Chicago to the train station. I squinted in the sunlight and a cool breeze kissed my shoulders. People strolled and zipped alongside me heading for work and play in the city. My friend told me it was a good 20-minute walk from her apartment, and I was ready to drink in all the sights of this city I once called home.
I crossed one more street and the GPS led me down the lower part of Columbus Street. Cars whizzed by. Taxis honked. Suddenly, I found myself walking through an almost-deserted dark corridor lined with makeshift tents and battered shopping carts.
My city girl safety alarm started to go off in my heart. Here I was dressed up for a presentation, pulling a suitcase full of books to sell, carrying an iPhone and trekking down the middle of a darkened and deserted street. My heart raced as I walked on. There was no escape route, no turning down another street. In two city blocks, I had gone from pristine parks and regal high-rise hotels to a tent city for the homeless. The contrast was not lost on me.
I wondered what I would do if someone talked to me. Just then I saw some movement under a dirty sleeping bag that was pushed up against a concrete barrier. A mussy-haired figure sat up and called out, “Hey, what time is it?”
I fumbled with my phone, which probably cost more than everything he owned, and mumbled an answer. I quickened my pace.
Soon I was on the other side, entering one of Chicago’s premier tourist areas complete with green lawns and rose gardens, kids laughing and playing on the gigantic playground, people snapping photos by the fountain and a view of the sparkling Lake Michigan in the distance.
I was safe. And I was horribly ashamed. I had missed an opportunity again.
These words burned like hot coals in my heart: “For I was hungry and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger and you didn’t take Me in; I was naked and you didn’t clothe Me, sick in prison and you didn’t take care of Me” (Matthew 25:42-43).
For months, this issue of how to approach the homeless has gnawed at me. Truth be told, I have had more than one encounter this year that has kept me up at night wondering: How can I help? What’s the most appropriate way to grant dignity without perpetuating dependency? What could I possibly give that could help that person on the street corner or sleeping under the overpass? Is it arrogant to think I actually have something to give?
I rode the train to the neighborhood on the south side of Chicago where I grew up. I decided to grab lunch before my presentation at a little Italian place where I used to waitress. More than 18 years had passed since the last time I had laid eyes on one of those tables with the checkered tablecloths. I was feeling nostalgic sitting there waiting for my Italian beef sandwich.
Then she wandered in.
She had ashy skin and wore slouchy, thin clothes. She started asking the waitress for a lasagna she had supposedly ordered a few days ago but never picked up. The waitress kept saying she needed a receipt. Clearly, she didn’t have that receipt.
I knew in my heart this was my opportunity. We locked eyes. She came over and asked if she could use my phone to call her aunt for a ride. I was about to hand over my phone, but then I thought twice. I asked her if I could make the call for her. She gave me her aunt’s number and said her name was Mary. The woman picked up. I explained that Mary was with me. The woman said she was at work and Mary needed to wait there until she was done with work if she needed a ride. She whispered that Mary had some mental problems.
I hung up and relayed most of that information to Mary. Just then the waitress delivered my food. I saw Mary’s eyes hover over the bag and the giant lemonade in my hand. I headed for the door and she followed me. Just outside the door, I turned to her and asked her if she’d like to share my lunch. Her eyes lit up and she nodded.
As I dug in the bag for my sandwich, the waitress and manager came out. They told me I didn’t need to give Mary food and apologized for the inconvenience. I froze, unsure of what to do next.
“We will make her something,” the waitress assured. I searched her eyes to see if she was sincere. Somewhere between that phone call and the door, Mary had crossed the threshold of my heart. I knew she was mine to take care of today. I pulled out my wallet and handed the waitress a 20-dollar bill. “Get her what she wants for lunch please,” I said. The waitress thanked me. The manager stood watching, incredulous.
Somewhat embarrassed by the attention, I turned to leave. Then Mary called after me in her husky voice, “Can I give you a hug?”
I paused. I ran back to her and hugged her neck tightly. “God bless you,” she whispered.
Here’s the deal. I pulled a 20-dollar bill out of my wallet. Big whoop. I probably spend 40 times that monthly on eating out and fancy groceries from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. The sacrifice is actually minimal. In that moment, Jesus was at work fine-tuning my perspective.
The first shift for me was in remembering that it is not my place to judge how someone uses the gifts I provide. So often I find myself in such a quandary over whether or not to give someone money that I do nothing at all. I get stuck wondering about whether they will use my money for drugs or alcohol. My mind chases through a labyrinth, wondering if my resources will somehow perpetuate their addictions or problems. The reality is: this could happen, but I am learning this is not my job to size someone up and figure out if they are going to be responsible or not. I am not to judge. Discernment is good but should never be an excuse for complacency.
Instead, I can dig deeper and see if there is a more specific need beyond money. Of course, that requires going a step further and taking time to ask what they need. Yet, this is another way we can enter in the story of the “least of these” and give the gift of dignity. I may discover they really need a meal, a warm blanket or a pair of shoes.
Sometimes engaging with someone may require I learn more about policy issues and how I can be an advocate for affordable housing or job training or micro-lending or community gardens.
Rather than a pat-myself-on-the-back moment, this was a stoop-lower opportunity. I was acutely aware that feeding Mary or offering someone dignity through a smile or learning their name or advocating for the homeless is really not about charity or me changing the world as much as it is about obedience to the gospel.
We are told numerous times throughout scripture to “defend the oppressed” (Isaiah 1:17), “do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless, the widow” (Jeremiah 22:3), “speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves” (Proverbs 31:8) and “to act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly…” (Micah 6:8). I don’t believe these things are optional.
Administering justice for His glory
Tim Keller writes in his book, Generous Justice, “Serving the poor is our opportunity to reveal God’s glory to the world.”
We are all broken in need of God’s grace. I have tasted that grace, and my deep desire is for others to experience that grace and see God’s glory too. Beyond obedience, we may experience the joy of sharing resources with others.
I challenge you with this: How can you reach out to the marginalized in your neighborhood or city? How can you listen and learn more about the needs and injustices they face? How can you bring God glory by serving, defending and advocating for these men and women?
I recently heard best-selling author Bob Goff share this: “I want people to meet you and me and feel like they just met heaven.”
Looking back, I realized Mary and I both tasted heaven that day.
Image Credit: Wayne S. Grazio, Creative Commons