The day began bitter cold, both in my heart and outside downtown Denver. The temperature was brutal and snow had blanketed the ground. We were expected to reach Denver for Jesus that day. Skeptical and fearful, I joined in the fun, being a part of a group of five that would receive a manila envelope unveiling step by step instructions as to what our mission was that day. We gathered in a huddle and ceremonially opened our envelope, anxiously awaiting what it would say inside. We were to catch the bus at 11:50 a.m. and end up in a particular neighborhood. Suddenly I realized we very well could be doing what I so dreaded to do, go door to door with tracks in hand, bugging people in the middle of the afternoon, sporting our phony Jesus smiles. Or so it was this way in my evangelizing past. I followed obediently, secretly hoping this would not be the case. After arriving and hearing our mission, lo and behold, that was exactly what we would be doing. After 2 hours of rejection, wet and cold, we stepped on the bus to head back to our primary location. In the meantime, I observed the saddened despair and poverty that the people of that neighborhood and sitting next to me on the bus experienced every single day. I was frustrated. I had a heart to help people; to love them. But there was a barrier between me and them because I didn’t know how. I saw a need but did not know how to meet it, and I knew that going door to door was the most cliché and ineffective way to do that. The world’s problems seemed too big, too impossible to fix in one day. Overwhelmed with any and all emotions, my heart gave up. Surely there was a way to show Jesus to people with going door to door. Surely I had something to offer of myself and the Jesus inside of me. But being cold, wet, uncomfortable, and hungry, and escorted myself to the luxurious Sheraton hotel where I spent my days that week. I put on some warm clothes, gathered my pen and paper, and set out to downtown Denver to treat myself to a latte and reflection time. And in this reflection time I would vent to God about all the injustices in the world, many of which I had just seen, and tell Him how hard it was to live down here with questions beyond measure about why I had so much and others had so little. This was my mission for that afternoon.
As I sipped my latte, I headed down 16th street, looking for a place to settle. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a homeless man scooting his things out from the mall in a little buggy. On it was a sign. On it wrote something about money and food. A policeman had stopped him, said something, and walked off. My spirit and body suddenly cooperated and pushed me to talk to him. My mind didn’t even stop to question the idea. For some reason, I found myself confident. The first thing that came out of my mouth (naturally) was, “How are you?” I immediately shut myself down for saying such a stupid thing. Come on Liz, I thought, what would he say, “Great. Just a little chilly and homeless.” So I don’t even remember what he said, or what I said after that. I just know I tried everything to have normal conversation as anyone would, regardless of whether he owned a home or not. I invited him to walk and talk. We ended at the corner of the street, talking about poetry and injustice. Among his food and blankets to keep warm, I think the most beneficial thing he had with him was a book of poetry he had found on the ground somewhere. It was something that reminded him that he was human and his brain was still working. It didn’t scream out that he was suffering. It didn’t put him lower than anybody else. It took him away from his problems and allowed him to engage in another world besides his own.
We continued to talk about random things….just like any friends would. I wasn’t afraid to acknowledge his situation, but I also didn’t want to focus on it. Just like him, I am more than my circumstances and problems. I have a story, passions and ideas. So I set out to ask him about his. He interrupted in saying that he had a lot of things to tell the world; that he wanted his voice to be heard. He turned to me, honest and so real, asking if I would write down his story. I laughed a little nervously. What do you say to that? Taking advantage of the moment, I agreed with a smile. It took both of us by surprise. I realized that I had just made a promise to someone that experienced nothing but inconsistency and broken promises in his life. Great. I was going to be another one. Or maybe not? Maybe this conversation would last more than today….and his story would be one that I tell.
In the bitter cold, we both stood paralyzed while I tried to figure out where I could go with a homeless man where it was warm, safe, and very public for safety. Coming to the end of my list, I escorted him to the Sheraton hotel lobby. How suiting. So we warm up on the leather couches as we watched preoccupied college students scurry by in their social huddles, dressed in their new Gap jeans and arguing over whether Starbucks or Jamba Juice would serve as the best snack. I held my latte as I searched for my pen and paper. So many thoughts run through your mind in a moment. In this particular one, I wasn’t sure if I made the right choice to bring him into the hotel. Was it shoving wealth in his face? Was it rude? These were just a few of the many questions that flooded my mind. I had no idea. But he was with me, and in this I held a sense of pride and protection as he was able to indulge in the warmth of the building for the next hour.
Just like anyone, where do you start with one's story? I hit around a few different questions, trying to gage what would get him talking. He was willing, but after getting emotional about one thing or the other, he kept on asking me what I wanted to know. And frantically, I would just say “your story,” which of course was dumb. He really hadn’t processed his story; that was my job to help him. I wanted to gather his thoughts and experiences and help make sense of them. I tried to gage the areas where he was comfortable talking about. I quickly ruled out his childhood. Although I wanted the whole story, I wasn’t about to make this homeless man relive the tragedy of his childhood for me. It just wasn’t the time. There were other touchy subjects that I quickly darted off of. So we landed on photography. You can tell when someone loves something or someone. Their eyes light up. They could talk forever about it. And in doing this, they end up reliving memories in their head while talking…kind of in their own world. I love watching people in this state. It’s enjoyable for me. So he loved taking pictures. He kept on saying his favorite thing to do was to “shoot children.” I cringed inside every time he repeated that phrase, only fretting about what it sounded like to a stranger passing by on our conversation. I quickly got over my insecurity, intently listening to this man relive his history.
James was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. He began that his grandpa was in the mafia and he had a dad that molested him. This is when we skipped to his later life. He dropped out of high school and ventured into the work world. He did construction for most of his years, making decent money. For a short time, like I said, he did photography. This brought back a vivid memory of the first time (and maybe the only) he felt appreciated by a mother who had brought her child to get photographed. He retold the story of how she hugged him, with tears in her eyes, and thanked him for his great work. This was important to him.
James had done one too many drugs in his years to develop HIV. Too many needles, too many bad choices. He found out a year before our discussion that day that he was ill. Since then, I believe he has been reflecting on a lot of things, as it was coming out in our conversation. The scabs on his face told the story of a fight he had gotten with another homeless man recently that called his grandson the N-word. His face immediately squished together into a scowl, his lips puckering together, trembling, as he relived the anger. I quickly moved us ahead, expressing the joy that he had grandchildren, nine actually. James had been through two marriages, the most current one, for a very short time until she passed away. That is when he quit his job which led us to his current situation, being homeless. He said he just quit. He knows and admits his homelessness is his fault. Unlike many people I have talked to, he doesn’t blame God and James doesn’t hate the world. He took full responsibility for his actions. In thinking about the injustice in this world earlier that day, I asked him how he believed in God after seeing so many people hurting. He had no problem interrupting me to defend God’s sovereignty. He re-explained that God did not do this to him, that God is good to him and faithful to bring him out of it. I stared in amazement as my pride crumbled to the ground. Here was this man without a warm place to sleep or any security in his life with more faith than me and all my comforts. This man was wise. It’s true, it’s easier to understand the things of God when you’re poor, stripped of all the world’s pleasures and comfort, than it is to be rich. Maybe that parable made sense to me now.
It has been 5 years since his wife died, and James still finds himself humbly on the streets of Colorado, asking people for money. He is on the waiting list for low-income housing. He holds his head up, with hope for his future and love in his heart. He willingly left me with 3 pieces of advice, each holding an important piece of history in his heart:
Love your fellow man no matter what
Don’t judge people by the color of their skin
Stay in school
All of his advice was said with great convincing and belief, and with stories of their own of how he lived out experiences that taught him these things. There was a major sense of worth for James to be able to, in the midst of admitting all his bad decisions in life, pass on advice that is true to his story. And I received it gladly, and forever etched the conversation in my mind. I was able to pray for him before he left, praying for a warm place for him to sleep that night. He scooted over on the couch to embrace me. You know, I think he felt loved. And, I realized, so did I. In this weird way, I felt complete, like I had done something that I was truly made to do: Love God, and love others. So we got up and said goodbye as I escorted him out the door, and James set out into the world and onto this paper.
His story; our story. They are stories to be told and to be heard. And believe it or not, we find God intertwined in the depths and colors of our experiences…in the midst of our relationships and conversations. God is in the dirty places of this world…on the streets in people like James….shedding light in the midst of our own hopelessness. God is in places outside of our sterile churches and 4-step tracks to salvation. He is in the midst of every person on that subway, in the man sitting on the corner with the sign. God is present in the lost places. We must go and meet Him there. Because there awaits a story to be told...and a place for God to be glorified.
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