I found my self sharing all about John on a call today. I had not planned on it but out it came. This story is near and dear to my heart. It was during a season of my life where I know I was really learning to not only hear God’s voice but to trust it as well. The first time I saw John, standing on the busy street corner, the sight of him made me catch my breath. Long white hair, long white beard, leaning as if totally reliant upon a cross he had made out of two pieces of wood. I would drive by this corner every day…you know…on my way to the mall, Barnes and Noble, Starbucks…all the important things in life. Day after day I would “hear” as I drove by…”Stop and talk to this man”… but, of course, I ignored it…until I couldn’t. As I shared today on the call…so many times, the voice of God comes in and interrupts our every day routines and asks us to step out…to dare … to fight against that voice of reason that says “stop and talk to this homeless man on the corner all by myself?!?! Well, that makes no sense.”
One midweek day, I passed by again and there he was…and there was the same plea, “stop and talk to this man”. I drove past, but today was different. As I pulled up to Starbucks I had an acute awareness of how I would feel if I drove back and he was gone. I would have known that I would have missed…it. Something. And so…I drove back…and this time, instead of a sideways glance I pulled my car over, parked it, and got out. I walked right over to this enigma of a man that, as my daughter would later say, “looked like Moses and acted like Jesus.”
Well here is an awkward scene. Me in my white mercedes…all alone…and him…tattered clothes and nothing but what he had on and this cross. Standing there. Both of us probably wondering what to say. I could feel the stares from the people driving by…curiosity, pity, perhaps for some, jealousy. He wouldn’t even look at me in the eyes at first. The meekness of this man and the gentleness of his spirit was so overwhelming.
I told him I felt like I was supposed to stop. Could I do anything for him? He would not take money. Never would. He said that people didn’t know what to do with a homeless man carrying a cross that won’t take money. We chatted a bit, shared pleasantries, I wished him the best and then drove away. But I could not stop thinking about him. I had to return.
The next day was the day before halloween 2009. You could tell a storm was coming in. I drove by and I stopped yet again. “Hey John!” Yup…here I am again…the woman who just stops to chit chat. It’s me. This day, eye contact was made and our conversations went a little deeper. We talked about the rain coming…he said he had a tarp but that he was a little worried being out on halloween…carrying that big ole cross and all. I knew it in an instant. He was coming home with me.
And he did. We had spare bedrooms but he would not come in. He insisted that he simply needed a roof from the rain and that the garage or even a storage shed in the backyard would be just fine. I fixed up that garage. Pulled the cars out. Blew up an air mattress. Found a side table and lamp for some warm lighting. Set up a heater and found the best blankets we had. And there…he slept.
The next morning I came down and knocked on the door. I wanted to invite him in for coffee. He would not come…said he had shook up some instant in a bottle and had to get out on his beat to carry that cross. “If a man stops long enough it gets too hard to get back out there with a cross.” Every morning for the next couple of days, we invited him in. Finally, one morning I came down and there he was, sitting at the table with Keith. Two old friends chatting it up over a cup of joe. As soon as I entered the room he got up and let me have the seat and proceeded to sit on the floor. This was our routine…even though I insisted that he stay at the table.
We learned so much talking to him. We felt so at ease with him. Katherine had no fear around him and even the neighborhood kids were drawn to him when they came over. Now the parents…not so much. Many wondered who in the world this homeless man was they would see leaving our garage in mornings to walk the streets with a cross. We got words of warning from people…you know.
He probably stayed with us for about two weeks…and then, he moved on. He felt like he was supposed to go and be homeless in D.C…which, by the way, has one of our largest homeless populations in the country…and is the ONLY place where you cannot carry a cross. Good to know. The last day he was there was an interesting, life changing day for all of us.
Our good friends and neighbors came down. We were about to leave to go on a ministry trip with them. John was there with us at the kitchen table when we got the knock on the door. They were coming to share their hearts and their situation and to let us know that they could not go on the trip with us because they could not even afford gas for the car or food for the pantry for their kids. They began to share their story and how bad it had gotten…none of us had known. They were literally at the end of their rope. They shared and shared and cried and poured out their hearts to us. John, in the corner, eyes down, simply listening. And then…he spoke.
“I don’t know if you would be willing, but I have $150 in foodstamps and I don’t need it. I have everything that I need. We could go to the store. You don’t have to be seen with me. I will just pay for it and leave.” We were all stunned. It was too much. It broke our neighbors and if you have never seen a grown man cry…well, let’s just say our kitchen would not have been the place to be. The men gathered up and got in the car to go the store. The women sat at the table in silence. The kids went upstairs to draw pictures for John to take with him on his journey.
The pictures from that night at the grocery store were humbling, awe inspiring, and so moving that every time I tell this story it is difficult for me to get thru it. That $150 bought so much food that three carts were overflowing. A father, feeling all kinds of emotions I am sure…standing at the back of them…and a homeless man, at the front, pulling out his last food stamps to pay the bill. What a picture. What a lesson. What a moment that marked us all forever.
Keith and I took John to the bus station that night….I cried the whole way. I didn’t want to see him go. And as we drove up…in this not so good part of town…and John got out with only the clothes he could layer on his back and a dufflebag slung over his shoulder…I looked to the left at the long brick wall lining our pathway to walk up to the station. In graffiti in huge letters were the words: GOD IS REAL. It was too much. It broke me. I will have to find that picture to share with you…John walking up that walkway and that wall…that wall looming over him with those words that could never be more true than on that night.
GOD IS REAL. SO REAL….and so often, He shows up in ways we would never imagine and couldn’t even make up. I have to wonder how much we miss by not listening to the small nudges like, “stop and talk to this man”… the seemingly insignificant moments that we bypass as we go on our merry ways. How many people have we looked at feeling that WE have something to offer THEM…when all the while the true treasure lies in what they have to offer us.