I haven’t blogged about my street experiences in a long time. But then my experiences there are becoming evermore distant memories. Still, those memories have value, I think. Those experiences gave me a perspective; they taught me lessons; and they were notable adventures sometimes. All of that is worthy of blogging.
I remember the first time I went to a street corner on a busy intersection to “fly a sign.” I must take care to call it “fly a sign,” since I was not actually begging for any money. Instead, my sign asked for prayer. I did not need the money. I was one of those people you sometimes hear about in that jaded and contemptuous proverbial manner who actually has a nice house and doesn’t even need your money. So… I didn’t beg for it.
But I asked for prayer instead. And I thought that would be fair game.
Now… backing up my story just a bit…
Before I set foot on that corner (the center island in a major artery where it meets the freeway (to be more descriptive)), I was enthused by the idea. I started yearning to go. At first, it was just a crazy idea, but it wouldn’t let me alone. Eventually, I decided I needed to plan for it. And that really stepped up my game. I had to answer a number of questions such as: When? Where? For how long?
You might think you could simply walk out there and sit down, and really you could. But I wanted to experience the life. Just a taste. And as I considered things, it occurred to me that I would be seen there by the driving public at large, and in this town there is a very, very good chance that I would be seen by a friend or two – maybe even my employer. I might need to explain myself, and I had no idea when, to whom, or what kind of circumstance such inquiry might arise. (Would it come up at a party, a church potluck, the break room at work? Would it come up at a job evaluation or even a job interview? Such things are possible, and they might be delicate situations.)
So, I prayed on it a lot. I began considering how ashamed I would feel seeing friends and family or colleagues driving past me… looking, puzzling, talking….
I would imagine conversations resulting from my adventure. Perhaps an attractive girl from the front office or from the coffee shop who sometimes talks with me might see me there, and just when I think I might be landing a date with her, she inquires. Maybe my boss asks, and I tell him that I want to know for myself what the poor are experiencing there. Maybe not the whole picture, but a part, an authentic part. And maybe he wonders if my doing so reflects poorly on the company. (Thus, I made sure not to wear the company logo shirt as I did this!) Maybe someone in my Bible class will see me and ask about it during Sunday school and give me an opportunity to witness where it really counts. Maybe.
There were so many “maybes” to consider.
The one thing I was sure of was that I would have to deal with humility. Uncommon humility. I didn’t realize how proud I was, actually, until I began pushing myself to consider all these possible situations.
I had to prepare my mind for the distinct possibility that by humbling myself like this, I might not get that date after all. I don’t know any women who want to date a homeless man. All the more bizarre to date a man who wants to be LIKE the homeless! (Yes, Mrs. Agent X was a rare find!!!)
I had to plan to be humiliated like I never had been before.
I was not guaranteed to experience this utter humiliation, but I was really, really risking it.
And yet, in all of this, I was feeling the draw. I was yearning for it. I sensed that I was embarking on a faith adventure more authentic than I had known before. You really might see me out there, and I probably would not have a reason, an explanation, that would justify myself to your liking or mine, and most definitely would NOT save face. It would likely just dig me in deeper into humility.
And so I finally was prepared.
I chose the busiest street corner within a half mile of my work. That way the odds of being seen by coworkers would be astronomically high. Almost impossible to miss. And I chose to be there on my day off, but at about the same hour of the day that the crew punched out. I was expecting to be seen.
Then I went.
And you know what?
If any of my coworkers saw me, I did not see them. Ha! And no one ever brought it up for question. Not once.
That doesn’t mean I was unnoticed. It doesn’t mean coworkers didn’t talk. It just means I didn’t see them seeing me, and they never broached it with me if they did.
But you know what I did see?
I saw thousands upon thousands of motorists pass me by.
There is no way I could count them all. I could not have counted one fourth of them. I spent a couple hours out there being passed by over and over and over again, three cars abreast each way, and when not stopped at the light, passing by at 35mph.
It was so deeply impersonal.
At first, I didn’t have the nerve to look motorists and vehicle occupants in the eye. I was still struggling with my own pride. But eventually, I got up the nerve, and then I was overwhelmed by the masses of people who would not look my general direction.
Eventually, I decided that there was a built-in resistance to looking at me that most people were dealing with, because a lot of the time I sensed it would be more natural to look in my direction, but people would turn away instead. Hundreds of them sat idle just two feet away from me waiting for the light to change and looking this way and that… any direction by mine!
The ocean of indifference was overwhelming.
And for a while, maybe the whole first hour, I thought this was the case with everyone. There were too many to be sure, but out of thousands of passersby, I did not connect with even one.
And then I did.
One car where the lady looked.
Then I spent twenty minutes trying to decide if it was just a blank stare or disgust? She sure didn’t go by thinking I was worth her time to stop and talk to, but I could see she read my sign.
Eventually, there was another.
Not in rapid succession, but I began to see that there were a few.
And then a woman in a beat up hatchback rolled through the intersection, turned into a nearby parking lot, circled around and came back to my spot, caught the light red, rolled down her window and tried to give me $5.
I refused it, but she insisted. I refused again, and she relented. I assured her that I really only wanted her prayer, and she struggled to accept that. She was moved by my presence, and I felt a power go out from me then. A connection deeper than I am prepared to understand. The eyes of her heart were open, and she saw me. She was moved with compassion. She did not want me to sit there suffering need, and she had $5. She was obviously poor herself and obviously didn’t have much, but she wanted to share the “two mites” she did have.
It was a sacrifice.
I could see more in that exchange than she could. Unless… unless maybe she was an angel from heaven checking on me.
That very first outing was representative of many others I have undertaken. I have found myself far more ignored than engaged on the curb. It is dehumanizing, shameful, hot (or cold), dry (or wet), and loud and hazardous. And I spent a couple of hours there praying and bearing the image of God at the place of shame, pain, and despair in my community, and then I packed up my sign and went home, took a shower, brushed my teeth, prayed some more and watched Matlock (or something stupid) on my TV.
And it was a view I got from the curb.