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Living in suburbia, I never encountered the homeless. My images of them wavered between two extremes: half were self-respecting individuals working hard to make the best of their circumstances. The rest were drunks walking the streets at all hours causing trouble. I did know the homeless were not like everyone else. Most who saw them on the street would speed up, glancing at them warily without making eye contact.
I always imagined that if I were to meet a homeless person, it would be a life-changing experience - for both of us. I, a Christian, would lead the man to salvation, ensuring that soon he would be working in a tidy cubicle from which he would call me to gush about how I changed his life and ask how he could repay me.
“Can I take you to the Cardinals game? Send you part of my paycheck?” he’d ask.
“No, no,” I would say. “You’ve thanked me enough by turning your life around. See you at church.” Then I would lean back in my chair and ponder how much better my life was too. I would remember our first encounter, when he told me about the trials of poverty and life on the streets. I would sit next to him on the sidewalk, just like in the movies, and watch his life. And then, once he was sanitized, sanctified, and settled at a desk, I would look at everyone differently. I would love everyone, and they would love me.
Where did I get these asinine ideas? Some variation of this tale is always part of those happy missionary field reports my pastor reads. But, as many people actually know, and I soon found out, reality is quite different.
Last summer, during a trip to the nation’s capital, I strolled down a crowded street and noticed many homeless people. Curious as to which of my imaginary groups these real homeless people might fall into, and with the possibility for a life-changing experience on my mind, I decided this was my chance. I eyed a man who was as thin as me but taller.
I began pacing, sipping my soda as if my lips were glued to it, trying to find the courage to go up to this stranger. Finally I got the guts. The walk was tough. You know when you walk up to someone, they see you coming, you make eye contact and then for the next 10 seconds awkwardly act like the other person isn’t coming? That’s how it was.
“Hi there, my name’s Clayton. I don’t mean any offense, but would you like to have some lunch with me? I’m about to head inside to get some and would be glad to bring you a burger or two.”
“Burgers?” he grunted. “Yeah, I’ll take a burger. And a soda.”
Two others appeared, both in sweats. They were weathered and a mess; it was hard to tell they were women until I heard their voices.
“Burgers? I would like one, too. And water, not tea. My doctor said this growth was from too much tea,” she mumbled, showing me a lump on her arm. She was clearly mentally ill.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “I’ll get, how many, four burgers for you? Two for the gentleman and one for each lady!”
“And a soda. I want a soda,” the man grunted.
“Right! A soda and a water! I’ll be back soon,” I said loudly, nervously.
I ran back to the food court area, looking for a fast-food spot. I was excited, but surprised - they hadn’t even said thank you. My mind was still prepared for my epiphany, but so far, nothing life-changing had happened.
There was no fast food, which meant no dollar menu, which meant I shelled out $26 for seven burgers - I bought extras in case others showed up. I also grabbed two sodas. I really wanted to bless them.
Back outside, we sipped our drinks, ate our burgers, and made small talk.
“Where you from?”
“Missouri,” I said.
“Pretty far away.”
“Yep,” I agreed.
“Flew,” I confirmed.
I mentioned I was in D.C. for church-related activities and found out the man’s name was Mike, he was 45, and had lived in D.C. since childhood.
After 20 minutes I figured I needed to head back, so I stood. Still chewing on his second burger, Mike got up, too.
“This was a, uh, good thing. Thanks,” he said, as if he weren’t used to saying thank you.
I shook Mike’s hand and he gave me a pat on the back. I said “God Bless” with a smile and he cracked a smile before walking away. I stood there in a moment of reflection. My encounter hadn’t really gone as I had imagined - in fact, it was rather anti-climactic, all things considered - but for some reason I felt more at peace than I had in a long time. It was an incredible joy to know that for once, I did something that benefited others. Could this be the epiphany I was looking for?
I follow Jesus, who commands his followers to feed the poor and clothe the needy, and at that moment I finally realized why. This command is not just because it looks nice for His public relations department. He didn’t command it so that people would have a reason to like Christians and want to be like them. He commanded his followers to do this because it produces true joy, and true good. He knew it would not just make the receiver feel loved, but the giver, too. It is only when we show Jesus’ love to others that we can begin to feel the love He intended for us. I intended to bless someone that day, and in return, I was blessed as well.
My encounter with a homeless person wasn’t exactly the happy missionary story that I heard every Sunday, and wasn’t worthy of the evening news, but even so, for me, it was life changing and important. Mike taught me that life change is what happens when you replace imagination with reality, risk $26 to be a blessing and act out of a humble heart. The best part is, this can happen every day, even in my suburban neighborhood.