By Dan T.
Over the past few years, I've had several experiences that have reshaped my attitude towards the homeless and were a big part of my motivation for joining the CO:Mission team.
One day a young man stopped me on the platform. Physically stopped me -- aggressive, even for the most persistent panhandlers -- and pleaded for any money I could spare. After several attempts I was able to brush him off, like the others, and continue to my bus. But something was different this time.
I don't know if it was the sheer desperation in his voice or the look of fear in his eyes, but something about him stayed with me. It was an eye opening experience. I was habitually refusing to acknowledge that there were people around me in need, and that I had the ability to help. What bothers me most about my interaction with this young man is that I didn't even bother to give him a moment of my time. I didn't make an effort to hear his plight or ask why he needed money. I quickly passed judgement and moved on with my own life.
I've speculated about what his situation really was. Was he simply in a tight spot trying to get to his destination? Was he hungry and looking for food? Was he homeless and trying to make a few bucks to get by?
The truth is, I'll never know.
How many times have we walked past a homeless person on the street, or seen a panhandler on the corner, and acted like we never saw them? If you ignore them enough times, soon you'll stop noticing them altogether. During a panel discussion on homelessness in Concord last year, a man who had experienced homelessness was asked what the hardest part of being homeless was. His answer? Feeling like he was invisible. Tuned out. Pushed out of sight and mind by society. No longer a person.
This was how I treated the young man on the platform in South Station, and the reality of it stings to this day.
Fast forward several years. It was only days before Thanksgiving and I was in Chicago attending a conference for work. After our sessions ended I went back to my hotel room to catch up on work before dinner. By the time I was finished, it was late and I needed to leave the hotel to find an open restaurant.
It was a bitterly cold night, and the wind cut through every layer I was wearing. As I walked along the sidewalk, I could see a man bundled beneath jackets and blankets asking passers-by for spare change. And I watched as every single one of them treated him the exact same way I treated the young man in Boston -- some people ignored him, pretending they didn't see or hear him, and others quickly brushed him off and hurried on their way. By the time I approached him, I knew what was coming, and I was ready.
"I'm so sorry to bother you sir," he started. "Do you have any spare change? I'm not a drunk. I'm just hungry."
"I'm pretty hungry, too," I said. "Let's go find somewhere warm for dinner."
He was reluctant but eventually agreed to join me.
We tried several places but they were all closing for the night. As we walked and talked, he shared some of his story. His name was Larry and he had moved to Chicago several a years ago from Florida to be closer to his girlfriend. The year before, his girlfriend was struck and killed by a hit and run driver. He had sold and spent everything he had trying to find the driver, eventually ending up on the street with few possessions and no job.
I could tell Larry was struggling to accept that someone would spend time with him and wanted to hear his story. He repeatedly asked my why I was doing it, and thanked me profusely. He was used to being treated as a nuisance, and struggled to see himself as anything other than an inconvenience. He knew it, and he knew I knew it. But I didn't care. I was happy to help him and give him as much time as he wanted.
We eventually found a McDonalds that was still open, and shared a meal and more conversation out of the cold. Eventually, he was ready to leave. I bought him another meal to eat later and we parted ways.
During our time together, Larry's spirit visibly changed. He relaxed and opened up to me. I could tell he enjoyed himself and appreciated the time we spent together. At the end of the night, I knew I had made a difference in his life -- even if only a small one.
What did it cost me? A couple of McDonald's meals. But we both gained so much more than that. That night, my perspective and mindset toward people experiencing homelessness changed.
When we first started talking about leading a team from Trinity Bible Church to Colorado to serve the homeless alongside our friends at Soaring Wings Ministries, there was no question in my mind that God had been preparing me, through these experiences and others, for this specific opportunity.
This week, I'm joined by nine brothers and sisters who have each heard and obeyed a specific call on their lives to love and serve the homeless in Colorado. We've all had different experiences that led us to this point, but we share a common mission. I'm excited to see how Christ works in and through us this week.