I saw them out of the corner of my eye. A homeless couple, sitting on a bench, begging. As the other three members in our party shuffled into the BJ’s, my friend Travis decided to stop and listen to them. Not wanting to leave a brother behind, I told the others to go ahead while I stuck close to Travis, you know, in case something happened.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve come across and met several homeless people on countless occasions, at times even going out of my way to provide them food or clothing. Many of them are not as you would expect. They are not all junkies. Or alcoholics. Or robbers. Most of those whom I have met are coherent, decent people who just happened upon hard times. Still, whether subconsciously or not you kind of get the sense that they are a different class of people. In our tainted and jaded worlds we look to them as people whose worth and dignity are lower than yours.
So we walk by and turn an eye or try to feel good about ourselves by sparing some pennies or lint or whatever we have in our pockets. We go about our business and forget or pretend like this isn’t reality.
The reality is that night, we ran into a couple that was weathering some hard times. It’s one thing to be at a financial rock bottom. I can imagine what’s worse is having to beg for meal after meal just to survive. You are at the mercy of other men. So it was no surprise when the man’s first words to us were: “Please, listen, we’re not drug addicts or alcoholics or nothin’ like that, we just tryin’ to survive. Could you hear us out a bit?” Mind you, this was a 6’4 250-pound black man in his early forties, looking like he just retired from a fifteen year career in the NFL. He could have taken both of us out. But something prompted me and Travis to stop in that moment. And something prompted us further to listen.
I think what’s especially humbling when you are homeless and having to beg on the streets is the fact that you are no longer a name. All dignity is lost. You are just a face people pass by, a voice people choose to drown out or suppress in public. If people pass you by, you don’t exist. If people flippantly spare some change, you’re just a cause. But God has imprinted his image on you. Aren’t you worth more than that? Don’t you have a story, too?
In that moment, I decided I would help them out. I had a couple 20s in my wallet. But more than that, I wanted to return to them a sense of dignity that might have been misplaced or muddied in this whole ordeal. So I asked him for his name. “The name’s Andre,” he said as we shook hands. His felt like a sledgehammer. “And this is my wife, Chantiya.” Chantiya looked a little weary and exhausted, and perhaps she wasn’t all there. But Andre–there was something different; he had a good vibe about him. He is what I would call a gentle giant.
“So, Andre, what’s your story?” I asked.
He was a normal man not too unlike myself. He was working a typical job in the warehouse/assembly field before he got laid off due to the economic downturn. While he was trying to find another job, unemployment was paying him up to $15,000 to keep him afloat. Then they cut off their support. Now, he’s trying to help feed his wife and daughter by begging on the streets.
Within 15 minutes, they were no longer just another wandering voice in the night. They became real, living, breathing flesh. Andre and Chantiya. People like me who were just trying to get by in this beautiful struggle called life. The only difference was that we were riding opposite points of the wave right now. And I knew God didn’t bless us just to be fat collectors. Jesus was about dispensing; I just had to help.
Before I knew it, Andre and Chantiya were in my car. They needed a ride back to the Rodeway Inn in which they were living day-to-day. Throughout the car ride, we were talking about God and spirituality and how Jesus has been seeing them through this, even though it’s been hard. When we pulled up, Travis and I were taken aback by how dumpy the place was. Half-naked junkies smoking outside the rooms, giving us the look. It had a bad vibe all around. “It was like a scene out of Training Day,” he would later say.
For some inexplicable reason, I didn’t feel any bit threatened or afraid. I asked them how I could help them this day, and I met their need. They were very thankful and humbled. Then I asked them if I could pray for them. We all got in a circle, held hands, and came openly before our Maker. It was a powerful time I cannot exactly describe.
Before we left–and Travis was eager–Andre went to his room and came down with a copy of his resume. I told him I’d do everything I could to help him find a job, get him and his family back on their feet. Then we shook hands again. I told him how I was encouraged by his upbeat spirit through all of this, and to keep on fighting. “You know I will,” he said. “Cause you know Jesus Christ kept on fighting for us. He never quit.” Andre didn’t know it, but he had just delivered a powerful sermon.
Then we left. I’ve been trying to contact him ever since, with some leads I got. No response. I can’t find him.
Wherever they are, on this night or the next, I pray the Spirit of God be upon them. To protect them and lead them out of the dark valley. Because they are no longer just voices blowing in the wind. They are Andre and Chantiya, a married couple struggling in the beautiful disaster called life.
It’s easy to turn down a voice or cause when you don’t know the story. But when you lend your ears, colors begin to appear and life happens. It’s not always about getting in your words. I had nothing to say to them that night. I mean, what platitude could I give them that could possibly comfort them? Look for the silver lining? It’ll all turn out alright? I don’t know that. I haven’t been in their shoes.
But so much happens when you listen. When you try to immerse yourself in their world and reach out to them instead of trying to pull them into yours. Sometimes that’s all this world needs. More understanding, more listening, more love. The church is sounding like a broken record to the world, but I still have hope. I won’t give up on her, not just yet.
I learned it all that night.