One night last fall, I stopped at McDonald’s to grab dinner for the family after a men’s event at church. Outside the car in the parking lot, there was a homeless man holding a sign asking for help. Sadly, this has become a common sight now that we’ve moved from Wisconsin to California.
God has been dealing with me over the last decade, changing the way I see homelessness.
I am aware that many homeless people are there because of bad choices they’ve made, and continue to make. But I also know that many are suffering from mental illness, not to mention those that just had one too many bad breaks and no one left to keep them from stumbling across that line. God knows that there have been times in my life where I was “this close” to losing everything. So with my shifting perspective, I try to remind myself to see each homeless person for the human that they are.
I won’t lie. I still have prejudices that get in the way sometimes. That night at McDonald’s, though, I was able to clearly see the human behind the dirt and grime (probably because I had just come from church and I was thinking about the love of God). I don’t often carry cash, but I did have some that night, and I wanted to help him out. While I was still sitting in the car, I grabbed a $5 bill from my wallet. Before I stepped out of the car, though, I realized that I’d actually grabbed two $5 bills. So I put one of them back in my pocket and got out of the car and gave him the other $5 in the parking lot. “Here you go. Go get some dinner. Stay safe.”
He immediately followed me into the restaurant to order himself a meal. He got in line behind me and I felt God tell me I should have given him the other $5 as well. So I turned around to hand it to him, and I told him “keep that other $5 for tomorrow and use this $5 tonight”.
He tried to say thanks. His voice broke. I could tell it was genuine. He was hungry.
I ordered and moved off to the side to wait for my food. A minute later he walked up with a big smile on his face. He explained how the woman behind him, who wasn’t in line when I gave him the money, also wanted to help him, so she bought his dinner. At first when he was telling me, he was standing to my side, and I turned just my head to hear what he was saying. Then I made the conscious decision to turn my whole body and give him my full attention. He tried to give me $5 back. I told him to keep it and that he now had enough money for a couple extra meals as well. He felt so blessed. He was so genuine.
I asked him his name. “Johnny.” He held out his dirty hand. I shook it.
Maybe you’re thinking of the story in Matthew where the King says, “I was hungry and you fed me.” Yes, Jesus is pleased when we show compassion to “the least of these,” but that’s not my point today.
I am not the hero in this story.
My Father said to give. He is constantly saying to give. He is never not saying it. But I heard it this time. So I gave. I have no idea how Johnny got to where he was, whether or not he was a drug user or had psychological issues, whether his homelessness was his fault, or something that happened to him, whether he “deserved it” or not. None of that mattered when I heard, “Give.”
On my own, I am a broken, dirty sinner. Spiritually, I smell terrible. I am hungry and am looking for something to fill me. I have no claim to a home or a future, and I am destined for an eternity of lack and suffering — an eternity of receiving nothing but hate and pain. And, perhaps unlike Johnny, I deserve every bit of that. On my own, I am spiritually homeless.
Like Johnny, though, Someone met me where I was. Someone heard the Father say, “Give.” Someone fed me.
Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
He fed me. He gave me extra and saved me. His spirit overflows mine and I’ve received more than I need. He doesn’t want me to give the extra back.
I haven’t seen Johnny again since that night. I have no idea what happened to him. I gave him a couple meals, but not enough to pull him out of homelessness. Like I said, I’m not a hero. On the other hand, I’ve been thinking about my brief time with Johnny for almost a year now. Without ever knowing it, he continues to remind me of God’s grace and love towards me.
Seems to me that maybe he was the hero that night.