A few days ago I was driving home, like any other day, and spotted a man up ahead. As I got closer I noticed that he was begging for assistance. His sign said, “Anything Helps”. His clothes were haggard, equally matched by his warn, wrinkled, and sun-scorched skin. His appearance told a story and it must have been far from a fairytale. It was hard to tell the man’s age but I’m sure it was well past mine. Life plays tricks on a person’s age. Our experiences can make us look beyond or behind of our actual age. For this man, I have no doubt it was the first.
I’ve had a high level of empathy for the downtrodden for most of my adult life, especially since developing a deeper relationship with Jesus. But for some reason, this particular occasion made me want to burst into tears. This man appeared broken by life. I know, I know, some readers may be thinking that we can rise above life’s circumstances and don’t have to allow them to break us. I would agree that we always have a choice on how we react to everything in life. But I also believe that we don’t all have the same resources to help in the time of need. I’ve been very fortunate to have the life that I’ve had. I had a good home life with two parents who were present in my life. I’ve always had a handful of friends. I have a great church family now. My wife and kids are amazing. Life, while difficult at times, is pretty easy to make my way through because I’m surrounded by so many great people. That’s not the case for many people in this world. I’ve never known poverty, except for when I was in college. But that wasn’t actually poverty as most of the world experiences it. Yes, I’ve faced some of the worst things that life can deal a person, but I’ve always had those loving people help walk with me. I’m guessing, for this man, that was not the case.
I don’t know the man’s story. I wish I would have had a chance to talk to him. Caught in the wave of fast-moving traffic in a crazy busy thoroughfare, I had no opportunity to pull over. I only wish that he had been in different part of town. He’s been on my mind ever since that day and I’m hoping that I get another chance to run into him. I can’t help but think of the fact that he has to have a mom and dad somewhere. If not now, then at some point he did. Who knows if that too isn’t a sad story. Being a father of two little girls, I can’t help but think of them being in this man’s shoes. How could any father allow his child to grow up and become homeless? What has gone wrong in this man’s relationships? Does he have anyone who loves him? Does anyone know that his life has come to this? Have people tried to help him but at no avail? I was heartbroken.
Many people look at the homeless and see nothing but dirty clothes and a begar who will probably waste their money on alcohol. Sadly, I think that’s how most people see them. Coming from someone who has spent a lot of time with homeless people over the last six years, I can tell you that they are so much more than that. They are the culmination of a sad tale. I am fully aware that many of them choose to remain where they are but a lot plays into that. Things like fear, rejections, not knowing a way out, being surrounded by apathy, accepting a view of themselves that many portray to them, and being caught in a downward cycle. I’ve seen some come out of it, but sadly, most do not.
A few months ago at one of the local parks, I spotted a new sign that read, “don’t help the homeless”. It’s part of a new city campaign aimed at stopping individuals from giving handouts to homeless people. I understand the motive. They want people to push them to go to assistance organizations rather than depend on aid at the micro level. That sounds great, except, it won’t work, and in essence, it’s absolutely heartless. These are broken people…very broken people. They need help now. Immediate, short-term, and long-term help. Ever hear the slogan, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime”? Well, to teach a man to fish, you have to buy him a fishing pole, tackle, bait, and invest the time in their life to help them learn. Most people I know want to pass the buck along to someone else. They want to complain about “those people loitering in the park” yet they won’t go out of their way to show them some love. If there’s one thing that broken people need, it’s love. Judgment never helped anyone break free from anything.
I will be quick to admit that most of the time the homeless reek of booze and tobacco. They can also be very crude. Some of the people I meet with today, I’ve been hanging out with in parks for the last six years. But they are created in God’s image just the same as I am. For that reason alone, they deserve the same love as anyone else. They don’t deserve to be overlooked and cast aside. They’ve probably been treated that way most of their lives. We can either be one more voice of love and truth, or we can add to the resounding negativity and hate that gets thrown at them day after day.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
1 John 3:16-18 (NIV)
I want to be more broken for the broken in this world. Homeless or not, there are so many people around me that need my love and compassion. I don’t want the people in my life to have the same story as the man on the side of the road in the busy intersection. I want to do everything I can to speak life and hope into the lives of my family, my friends, my students, and my community. I don’t know what happened in this man’s story but I do know the stories of well over a hundred homeless people I’ve met over the last six years, and they are not filled with life and hope. If a third of the world claims to be followers of Jesus, how could that be? How can there be so many desperate hurting people filling our parks and intersections with cardboard signs? Lord, forgive us for all the times we’ve scowled and turned our heads. Lord, forgive us for ever thinking we were better than them. Lord, forgive us for not acting out the love we say is inside us. I count myself among the multitudes who need to do more, love more, and give more because my King gave everything.
If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (The Message)