So many of you commented about my encounter last week with Dillon and Crystal that I decided to continue the dialogue. I was greatly encouraged by the sense of compassion from everyone who commented. I know those feelings run deep, even among you who did not post a comment.
Kevin—you affirmed that the fact of God knowing who you are, your circumstances, your heart can work to make an everlasting impression on a person in need. You say rightly that God wants us to let people know that he loves them … how do we do that? What’s an effective way you’ve found to show God’s love?
Most of you aver that you’ve been convicted to respond. The problem—we don’t know what we’re to respond to. I learned not to wait until it’s convenient. As I went into a restaurant one misty evening with a friend for a late sandwich, I saw a homeless guy outside. I figured I’d buy an extra sandwich and hot drink for him when we left but said nothing to the man. After our fellowship time, I looked outside for the homeless guy to offer my gift. He was gone, nowhere to be found. I realized he lived in the moment; he had no idea of my noble intentions. I realized how out of touch I was with the people of the street. They have to be constantly on the prowl, like feral animals, competing for handouts with other destitute people.
I try to think to pray (sometimes I forget) about how to relate to each person. Lloyd chastised himself for not responding to several homeless he saw in Portland, which can be a more dangerous place than Salem. I’d say, first, be aware of your surroundings: Anybody else around? What if they’re deranged, or on drugs, or see you as a target? Here are some statistics from the Nat. Coalition for the Homeless: An average of 26 percent of homeless people are considered mentally ill, while 13 percent of homeless individuals were physically disabled (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2008). Nineteen percent of single homeless people are victims of domestic violence while 13 percent are veterans. 50% of the cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors identified domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness.
Figure out beforehand how you’re going to address this person; if you don’t, he or she will simply disappear while you’re trying to compose your speech. The fact that you caught their eye could be positive for them–or a sign that you may hurt them. Fear, grief, despair, anger are likely companions. Consider that their sense of self-esteem is in the toilet; they’ve been cursed at or physically abused by us “decent” people. Dillon had the flu; he was weak, hungry, possibly afraid I was going to tell him to leave that building, call the cops, insult him, or any number of negative responses. He knew this about himself: he smelled bad, he “didn’t have it together,” he was unkempt, and for 11 months, he’d been mostly rejected. The one bond of family was Crystal; without her, he would have been alone. Crystal was herself a victim of domestic violence; she showed me a restraining order against her man.
The needs of these people can seem so overwhelming that we are tempted to ignore them, making them truly “invisible people.” By God’s grace, we are not on the streets tonight but we can offer something to them of a tangible nature—a fast-food coupon, actual food (I make up sandwiches ahead of time to carry with me in my pickup. If I see someone, “Hey, what’s happening? You okay?”), maybe a spare coat, sox, a phone number/address. We should decide ahead of time not to judge this person we’re about to approach. It’s not our place to determine if they are “worthy” of our attention or beneficence; if God prompts us to enter their world for a few precious minutes, then know that He is in that encounter. Be kind; make eye contact; treat them with respect. Yes, a small percentage chooses to live on the streets. We won’t know. We should do our best to give them hope. Jesus loves them; he weeps for them in their misery.
You may not feel like you changed anyone’s circumstances for the better but the effort is worth it. A skinny snaggle-toothed woman in a mall parking lot took my sandwiches yesterday with a smile and a “God bless you!” She felt like she was giving me something back. She did.