As a minister, I am really a tourist. I don’t actually live on the streets, but I have spent a lot of time there. I have slept where humans are not supposed to sleep (in parks, empty lots, alleys, church-house steps, business entry-ways – under “no loitering” and “no trespassing” signs, bridges, and the watchful eye of security cameras). I have facilitated worship services in those places, stayed up late in the night praying and discussing Jesus with fellow sojourners. I even skipped a shower for three days once as I was doing these things. But I am not homeless, nor am I stuck in those situations. And, for that matter, I didn’t always do these things.
Like many (if not most) American Christians, I grew up feeling a burden for the homeless in my heart, but that did not always translate into “doing something”. Most of my life, I did not even know a single homeless person from the streets. In fact, I rarely saw them. I managed always to live in places where they were not prevelant on the one hand, nor was I skilled in spotting them on the other. Having visited Seattle, Washington numerous times, I am aware they can be easy to find in the big city. Once when I was visiting Venice Beach in L.A. and waiting in line outside the Italian restaurant, the wait staff offered us bread sticks which we in turn gave to homeless street people walking by. But I recall making friends with a street minister many years ago who talked about all the homeless of Lubbock, and when I asked him where he finds them, I discovered that I see them frequently without realizing it. I was living in a blind denial.
I remember the first time I “helped” a lady in distress. She was not homeless, but it turned out she was in need. She lived in the low-rent HUD apartments and was disabled. Our chance meeting was a divine appointment. I was detailing my boss’s car one Saturday at a local car wash. My car wash method required me to take extensive time sitting on the ground working dirt and grime out of the tires and every bit of trim – out of the door jams, bumpers, and grill. I was working there for several hours.
I must have been there a couple of hours before it dawned on me that the man and woman two stalls down were likewise taking far more time than usual at the self-serve car wash. But once it dawned on me, I began to pay them attention out of the corner of my eye. They were not in plain view, actually, but between my movements and theirs, I could study on them a bit over the course of the next hour or so.
It was a black couple. They appeared to be doing auto repairs in the stall on an old jalopy. Car repairs were one of the prohibitions listed on the wall, but it was obvious this car wash offered shade on a hot day. Eventually, it occured to me that the woman was much older than the man. She used a cane and rarely got out of the car, but the young man worked frantically moving back and forth from under the hood to the driver seat to the trunk. I finally realized this was going on for hours!
Eventually the young man walked across the empty lot nearby to the Arby’s and used a pay phone near the door. I was midway through my job, but I decided to inquire how things were going and approached the lady waiting in the car.
Her name was Alma, and her car had developed a recurring problem that her young friend claimed he could fix for her. However, it turned out to be more extensive than he had realized. He would need a special part from the parts store, but that was miles away. So he had gone to call for a ride. They would wait until another friend could run by to help.
It was just then that I wanted to help, but I did not know what to do. I was in my boss’s car. I did not have permission to drive this fine Southern Belle’s chariot around town helping a poor black family get parts. But I decided to risk it. I offered a ride to the parts store.
It took us about 20 minutes to return with the needed part. This was fantastic because Alma and her friend were facing the prospect of waiting an hour before their other friend would even arrive (hopefully). So, we all went back to our respective jobs. But now I knew Alma’s name. And when I saw her young friend head over to the phone again a half hour later, I inquired how things were going again. Sure enough, the new part did not resolve the problem. I offered another ride. Once again we hoped this would do the trick. But this time when we returned, I decided to inquire a little more of Ms. Alma. I said, “Ms. Alma, I might be way off base here, but I just have a funny sense that you are a church-going lady who reads your Bible. Would that be right?”
Alma afirmed it. And I said, “I have been studying the Gospel of Mark a lot and I find one passage a bit puzzling. I wonder if you might have any insight.”
I did not really expect Alma to have the insight I wanted, but one never knows unless one asks. But honestly, my real aim was to get Jesus to help me segue a more holistic interpersonal exchange with these people than just utilizing me for rides to the parts store. And sure enough, Ms. Alma wanted to talk about Jesus.
It turned out that both Alma and I are the type people who rarely leave home without a Bible in our bag or in our car. But on that occasion neither one of us were carrying! So, I had to quote the troubling passage as best I could (which wasn’t too hard since I had been studying on it extensively), and Alma recognized my citation of it. And then we puzzled on it together for a bit. Eventually Alma said, “You make me want to get my Bible out and look at that again!” That statement gave me great satisfaction. But in the meantime, I went back to my work as her young friend went back to his.
Finally a couple hours later, as the time for the evening meal approached, I was finishing up my job. I stepped around to the other stall to check on my new friends. Sadly the repair job was not going well. It looked like we were now in need of a professional. Problem was… we had no money AND Alma’s car was now stuck at the car wash too.
I said I would return my boss’s car to her and come back with my truck and check on them again when I was done. And I did. And here we were at the end of the day with Alma’s car worse off than when she arrived. We were not going to be able to fix it, but I offered to tow her home with my truck and a tow rope. She lived only a few blocks from the car wash, and it turned out, only a few blocks from me. I called our outreach minister at the church I was attending to see if she had any advice or even financial help for car repairs. I had never got involved in someone else’s troubles before, and I was feeling a little overwhelmed by this time.
My chagrin only intensified when Alma informed me that she would not go home. She told me that her husband would be upset with her because he did not want their young friend attempting to fix their car. Alma’s husband did not think the young man could do the job, but would probably botch it instead. Alma had gone behind his back, and she now feared her husband’s wrath.
I asked, “Ms. Alma, will he hit you?” She assured me that he would not, but she began weeping and said, “He will say hurtful things”. She could not bring herself to face him. She planned to sit in that car all night and wait.
“Wait for what, Ms. Alma? What happens in the morning?”
She did not know.
“Ms. Alma,” I said, “I cannot let you sit here in your car all night. That’s not right. This is Texas. A gentleman does not leave a lady in distress.”
I did not know what to do. I called other minister friends. They did not know what to do either. We were all stuck. I finally told Alma that if she stayed at the car wash all night, I would stay too. She insisted that I go home. She would be okay. I insisted that I would not leave her there.
Eventually, I had the idea and offered to speak to her husband. “Let me take you home and speak to your husband. I will come back tomorrow, and we will tow your car to my mechanic who will fix your car at no expense to you. Surely your husband can find that agreeable!”
Alma relented; I took her home; I met her husband, and before the night was done, I made a friend of him.
By this time I was INVOLVED. And, of course, that is what those of us living in “comfort zones” dread.
But I must say, it was an adventure too. Quite a fruitful adventure at that.
One of my minister friends came with me the next day and helped me tow the car to my mechanic, who it turned out was feeling conviction about returning to his church after years of backsliding. He was impressed with our benevolence and gave us a cut rate on the repairs. We took the ticket to the outreach minister who wrote a check to cover the expense, and then we took the car back to Alma, who by this time wanted to talk about the Gospel of Mark AND had invited the neighbors over to join the discussion!
Over the course of the next year or so, I made close friends with Alma. She now calls me her son. Her neighbor lady started going to church with me and together that neighbor lady and I began rounding up children from the projects to take to Sunday school each week. I hold the record at my old church for bringing 14 people to church one Sunday!
But the thing is this: I had to cross the rubicon I feared crossing. I got involved with strangers who did not look like me, talk like me, and who were needy. It began costing me a lot of time, money, and energy. My life began looking and feeling quite different. I did not live by my selfish agendas and ambitions any more. I had a flock to tend. But the thing is that I was living the life God gave me to live. And I could not see any of that from the otherside of that threshold. From there, I only saw fear. But on this side, I see the party of heaven.