“Meeting and befriending people whom Jesus would probably call ‘the least of these’ has changed my life over and over again.” – Jim Wallis
I am called by God to serve people who are experiencing homelessness. There is no other explanation. I would not have chosen this for myself. I don’t like striking up conversations with people I don’t know, and I would often rather sit in my apartment and write or watch Netflix than communicate with other people out in the world. But for some reason God seems to think that I would be good at ministry. Don’t get me wrong, I love people. I love building new relationships. My heart hurts for the broken places in this world and for people who feel there is no cure for their brokenness. But there is no reason, with my introverted personality, that I would get out of my car on the way to work and talk to a man or woman holding a sign on the side of the road other than God’s prompting. Over the years, I’ve met many people who are living out on the street, and these are some of their stories.
Tracey lives at the end of an interstate exit ramp, the exit I took to get to work every day for a year. During that year, I saw Tracey around 15 times. Tracey is white and in his late 30s or early 40s. His house is a blue tarp thrown over a branch about 30 yards into a patch of trees. I’ve never actually been to his home, but it’s visible in the fall and winter from the road. From what I could see, he also has a fire pit and several 5 gallon buckets for seating or storage. The first time I met Tracey, he was standing on the corner at the stop light at the end of the ramp. He was holding a stereotypical cardboard sign. I pulled my car over, put on my flashers, and got out with one of the pre-made toiletry kits I keep in my backseat. I greeted Tracey, shook his hand, and gave him the toiletry kit. I asked if I could pray with him, and he declined. He told me that I was the only person who had ever gotten out of my car to talk to him. “Most people don’t even see us,” he said.
I talked to Tracey quite a bit more throughout that year. Sometimes it was brief, and I would just roll down my window at the stoplight and chat with him while I waited for it to change. He told me about his girlfriend who lived around thirty minutes away. I was never quite sure if she was real or not. He told me about his recurring urethral infection and how he kept having to go back to the hospital because he was “sick.” He would show me the white bracelet with his name and information printed on it, like he felt the need to fact check his own story. He warned me to never do cocaine. I saw him once leaving the church where I worked carrying a bag of groceries he’d received from our food pantry. One of the last times I saw him before I moved away, he told me I looked really pretty, which was funny to me because I was wearing a t-shirt and athletic shorts, on my way to lead some games with the students in my youth group.
Sometimes I would see him walking along the sidewalk, talking to one of his fellow street-dwellers. I was always glad to see that at least he wasn’t alone.
I always saw Phillip at the same stoplight where I met Tracey, but I didn’t see him nearly as often. He was always holding a cardboard sign that read “HOMELESS PLEASE HELP.” Phillip is black and probably not much older than me, maybe 27 or so. He has one tear drop tattooed on his face, potentially indicating either that he’s been incarcerated once, or that he’s killed one person. Phillip is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Mild mannered and quiet, he seemed shocked the first time I talked to him. I followed the same pattern I had with Tracey, pulling my car over, putting on the flashers, and grabbing a toiletry kit. I talked with him for a minute, and he told me thank you probably three or four times. I asked if he wanted me to pray with him. He did, and we held hands for the duration of my prayer. As soon as I returned to my car, Phillip started to leave, walking off toward the interstate overpass. As the stoplight turned green, I noticed another car pull up next to him. A man got out, stopped Phillip before he could disappear into the woods, and prayed with him on the side of the road.
The second time I saw Phillip, I invited him to church with me the next Sunday. I gave him walking directions, as the church was probably a 10 minute walk from the stoplight. I made sure my friend Kate would be there to meet him because I had choir rehearsal before the service. But I wasn’t surprised when he didn’t show up.
The third time I saw Phillip, he remembered me as “the one who asked me to church.”
I moved to Atlanta on a Monday morning in August. I exited off of I-85, and, standing at the stoplight was an older black man holding a sign. I smiled to myself. I could not have asked for a better sign that I was in the right place. I gave him a toiletry bag out my window. He noticed that my car was piled high with clothes, a bedside table, and everything that lives in my bathroom cabinets.
“Are you going somewhere?” he asked.
“I’m actually moving here. I’m just getting into town.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll see me around. I’m out here a lot.”
Earlier this week I served at Gateway Center, an organization that serves people experiencing homelessness. Our group of volunteers painted and played cards with the guests.
Annette was skeptical at first, but finally sat down after a few minutes of watching us paint from afar. An African-American woman around 40, Annette was quiet and reserved.
“Hi, what’s your name?”
“Do you want to paint something with us?”
We sat and painted for a while. Annette produced a few pieces of art, the first two were compilations of words and phrases, such as “SMILE” and “NEVER STOP LAUGHING”. These phrases struck me, so I tried to make more conversation.
“How long have you lived in Atlanta?”
“Two months. I like it back home better, though. The city is too much.”
We commiserated over Atlanta traffic woes and riding MARTA (Atlanta’s public transit). As my time at Gateway Center ended, Annette handed me another painting. It read: MOS Productions.
“It’s my future production company.” Annette beamed.
“Well, I’ll definitely keep this, so one day when you’re famous, I’ll be able to sell this on E-bay for a million dollars!”
The Man with the Kitten
Along the sidewalk outside Gateway Center, between 15 and 20 people sat and relaxed together after receiving services from Gateway, such as assistance finding jobs or clothing and food. Others were waiting to be let inside. A group of five was sitting against a brick wall. As I walked by, I noticed a small kitten on the sidewalk—one of the men was hand feeding it.
“Can I pet him?” I asked.
“Her!” he replied. “And alright. I’m taking care of her. She has an infection but she’s getting better.”
I reached out and the tiny cat meowed at me, eyes squinting at the sun. I thanked the man and he nodded at me, taking the kitten in his hands and holding her protectively against his chest.
I can’t tell you if Phillip ever visited my church after I left or if the kitten has been nursed back to health by the man I met, but I know their lives continue on whether I’m there to witness them or not. Our stories touched, and then we moved on. But we all have a story. Whose lives have you allowed to brush up against yours? Whose have you tried to keep at a “safe” distance? Consider the lives that are a part of your story.