It was the summer going into my senior year of highschool. I was in the city of Atlanta, Georgia for a church mission trip. We had worked for nearly a week, in dirty environments and with people who had fallen short in life. I’d known we’d come to help people, but at that point in the trip I was still making assumptions about people without homes, before hearing their story. I felt as if, in some way they were beneath me.
On the last day of mission work, the leaders decided to take everyone to Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta. This park was said to be cluttered with homeless people. The plan was to go, talk and pray with the people. I hopped out of the van, eager to stretch my legs from the long ride. I began walking with the mission team to the park a few blocks away. The weather was hot, but clouds filled the sky. As we got closer, I started feeling apprehensive because I didn’t know what to expect.
I arrived at Woodruff Park. It seemed strange to find a park in the center of all the busy streets and buildings. I looked around and saw a large square of green grass, about the size of a football field in the center of the park. I could hear live jazz music playing in the distance. Although, the music was upbeat, the atmosphere was not. There were little tables where people could sit, though, most had their heads down on the table, sleeping. To my right was a mini playground. There were no kids occupying the playground, just a middle aged man, in tattered clothes sitting on one of the swings, staring blankly at the ground.
These sights overwhelmed me. I felt several eyes staring at me. I felt my breath begin to shorten and my anxiety well up. I was afraid of these people. Dana, my youth director, reassured my uneasiness by telling me I’d be ok, and to go make conversation. I took a deep breath and began walking toward a woman sitting on a small set of concrete stairs. Slouched over like a wilting flower, she wore a faded blue sweatshirt, and old jeans, too large for her sickly, skinny body. A cigarette was perched between her yellowing fingernails. I greeted her with a smile and asked how she was doing today, and if she’d like to talk for a little while.
With a look of suspicion, she replied quickly, “No.” Not wanting to upset her, I turned away, respecting her privacy. After being rejected, I was even more on edge than before. I didn’t know how I’d work up the courage to talk to another homeless person.
I began to walk in the opposite direction of the woman, along with a few others on the mission team. To my left, I saw a canopy with two men who played chess beneath it. A crowd of about ten people circled around the game, as a radio played music. When I saw the group’s unfriendly faces, I felt intimidated. A man standing beside the canopy in a green short sleeved shirt and jeans called me and the others over to him. My mind went into panic mode. I did not want to go talk to that crowd. Not wanting him to make a scene, the group and I set off toward them.
My heart beat fast as I approached the canopy. The man was homeless, but appeared cleaner than the others. His green shirt and jeans looked freshly washed, and his hands weren’t dark with grime like most of the other people around the canopy. I would not have guessed him to be homeless, until he told us. The man asked the group and me what we were doing in the park. I explained that we were there on a mission trip, and came to pray and talk with people. The man didn’t show interest in praying, but continued carrying on conversation. As he talked, a man walked by. He was yelling obnoxiously, but didn’t make sense. I was frightened by him, unaware of his intentions. The man in the green shirt was rambling on about the game of chess taking place under the canopy. Suddenly he stopped mid-sentence and looked into my eyes.
He said, “If you want to talk to anyone today, go talk to him.”
The group and I set off to talk to him, while my anxiety was at an all time high. This was one of the most uncomfortable situations I had encountered. The others and I approached the man cautiously. I felt my palms grow more sweaty with each step I took. He was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, watching us as we approached. The man appeared to be in his fifties, and he wore a pair of old black sweatpants, and a plain blue t-shirt with some holes in it. The clothes looked like they hadn’t been washed for some time. The whites of his eyes had a yellow tint to them, and his black hair looked dirty and unkept. The stench of liquor lingered in the air around him.
I prayed to God to give me the courage to remain calm while I began to speak. I explained why I was there, and asked if he wanted to say or pray about anything with the others and myself. I held my breath, waiting for his reply, unsure of how he might react. The man looked up and smiled.
The first words he spoke was, “God bless you”. I felt a sense of relief wash over me, and my stiff body relax.
I couldn’t help but smile.
The man said his name was Will, and began explaining his life’s story. I was shocked to hear that his father was a pastor and he grew up in a stable home. Will explained that when he was a teenager he began hanging out with the wrong people, and started drinking. Soon he became an alcoholic, and was asked to leave his house, unless he sobered up. Tears welled up in his eyes when he said he’d wanted to get off the streets for years. Whenever he tried to leave, the dark streets seduced him, pulling him back to the lifestyle he couldn’t escape. I could taste his hunger for freedom from his addiction.
Someone in the group spoke up asking if we could pray with him. Will wiped the tears from his eyes as he nodded. Everyone began holding hands forming a circle, ready to pray. I ended up next to Will. I gazed down at his grime filled hand and took a deep breath as I pushed the germaphobe part of myself away, grabbing hold of his warm hand for the prayer.
Will began praying for courage and strength to fight his addiction. He then began praying for us. He prayed the mission group would be kept safe, and never be put in the situation he was in. He also prayed for the other homeless in the park. He asked God to provide them a way out of the poverty, they lived in everyday. While he was praying the busy honking of traffic and outside noise disappeared, and I could only hear his words. Will prayed with more heart and soul than any pastor I’d ever heard. Once the prayers were said, Will individually hugged everyone in the group.
With tears falling from his face, and with a shaky voice he said, “Thank you so much. I really needed you guys here today.”
As I looked around the park and streets, crowded with the homeless, I realized I was no longer fearful of them. I perceived them not as dirty and dangerous, but as real human beings, like me. Though they had fallen short in life and struggled to make good decisions, I was no better than them. I knew I took my life, my family, my home, and my education for granted. I wanted to be a more appreciative and a less judgmental version of myself.
Not only did the experience change my way of thinking about others, it changed me spiritually as well. I came to the realization that I was simply going through the motions when it came to being a christian. I went to church and youth group, but I wasn’t fully grasping the true meaning of being a child of God. I had never seemed to feel God's presence around me. That day in Atlanta I had seen God in Will, and from that moment on I saw him everywhere. I saw him working through the other youth attending the trip, the homeless people I met, and the leaders. Most importantly I felt him working within me. He’d given me the strength and courage I’d needed in all the uncomfortable situations I’d encountered on that trip. I was there to do his work and I had. I knew from then on I’d no longer go through the motions of being a christian, but actually feel and understand what it means to be one.
I knew I’d never know what would happen to Will. I’d never find out if he’d make it out of his battle with alcoholism and get to return home. The words he spoke about needing our group there that day played on repeat in my head. As I began walking back to the van, a thought occurred to me that I needed to meet him, equally as much as he needed to meet me. Along with the group, I paused near a fountain of water. As I gazed at the wall with water streaming down, I said a prayer for Will and also for myself. I thanked God for sending me there to meet him. After a moment the group and I continued walking. I glanced up at the sky to see the sun trying to peek through the clouds. I smiled knowing it was God, watching over me.