My family and I had just finished eating dinner downtown, and as I was walking back to my car, this homeless dude caught my eye and came over to me. I could feel the words on his lip before they leapt from his tongue. I knew he was dying to ask me–like a soda bottle shaken one too many times–and he was going to pop any second with the question: “Do you have any spare change?” This is what the homeless call ‘spanging’.
And I was so pissed that I got flagged again. It’s like the homeless dudes have a “sucker” radar, and I blip within a 50 foot radius of them. Well, screw you, dude! NOT THIS TIME.
But something was different about this guy. I paused for a moment and realized I was lumping him into the “dirty hag” category I threw all the other homeless people in. Maybe this time, I’d listen. Maybe this time, I’d love…
So instead of just answering his questions, I started asking them. His name was James, and as he answered my questions, I started to piece together his story. I asked him all the normal ones: where he was from, what brought him here, why he was on the streets. But in the back of my mind, I was looking and listening for something more. I wanted to see the truth about this man and not just what I assumed.
Instantly, James and I connected. As I listened, the stereotype started to melt off the outside of him like a wax coat, and I started to see James as a human being…a human being who has been through hell. It was gut wrenching to listen to what he’d been through. He said he went bankrupt after paying medical bills for cancer and ended up on the street. He’s on parole because he beat the crap out of a guy that was molesting his daughter since she was 11. He hasn’t showered in days, let alone had a decent meal or changed clothes. He’s addicted to alcohol because he doesn’t know where else to turn. “It numbs everything for me,” he shared as he reflected on his hellish history. He started to tear up, and I felt like I stepped into his shoes for a minute. It felt like life was smacking me in the face like Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, just trading blows like they would do in their prime, and I couldn’t do anything about it.
And what I realized in that moment was if I wanted to help him, I had to get dirty with him. I couldn’t pinch my nose, pat him on the shoulder with a rubber glove, and disinfect my hands after. If I wanted to help him, I had to get knee-deep in his story, in his hurt–and yes–in his stench. But…I think we’re supposed to get dirty with people; that’s where the work is. If you’ve ever played sports, you know your best practices were the ones that left you gasping for air, drenched in sweat, and smattered with dirt and grass stains all over. Truth is, unless you’re willing to put in the work, you’re never going to improve. And in that moment, I knew I would never improve if I took the easy route and shrugged off my compassion. So I rolled up my sleeves, and I dove in.
You see, what happens when we actually invest our time into the people around us and start to see them as the way that we’re supposed to see them, we see the truth and the hurt that comes along with them. And, I think that’s what we’re really meant to do when we love them in the same way that we are commanded to love someone: non-judgmentally and without any casting of doubt. A true love for someone knows no boundaries. That’s what James deserved and when I gave it to him, and I think he could actually feel it. He smiled and instead of taking my $20 and running, we continued talking together. I know my family was standing two blocks away probably thinking, “What in the world is taking him so long to pick us up?!” But, in this moment, James was in front of me, and he mattered most.
Before I left, I also handed him a piece of paper with my name and phone number on it and told him to call me if he ever needed to. He told me where he usually hangs out and that he’d like to see me again if I could. And in that moment, my stereotypes started to creep in again: Do I really want to see this man again? He’s probably lying, and I’ll come by, and he won’t be there. He’s better off without you helping him because he can’t be helped.
And mid-thought, he snapped me out of all of that by saying something so simple, it almost made me weep in front of him. He asked if he could give me a hug. Instantly, all I could do was wrap my arms around him as he whispered, “Thanks for talking with me. I just wanted to feel like someone loved me.”
Cover Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons