I drive past the same man in his drab olive coat. He’s standing on a thin slice of cement in the middle of the road near the entrance to the freeway. He’s a young man with a goatee. In the summer his dark wavy hair brushes against his shoulders. In the winter it’s hidden under his hat. His cardboard sign remains the same: Homeless. Need help. Thanks.
I’ve done different things in response to his written plea. I’ve given him money. I’ve smiled. I’ve prayed for him. One time I rolled down my window and told him all about Inspiration Cafe and how they serve restaurant-style meals to people living on the street. I handed him their address as the light turned green and the car behind me started to honk. I even gave him a copy of my book, a collection of oral histories from men and women who were once homeless. I was hoping the stories might inspire him.
But he is still standing on that same thin slice of cement. This afternoon, for reasons I cannot quite conjure up, I can barely look at him. I think about all the months that have slipped by and the ways in which his life could—and should be—dramatically different, and my concern for his well-being quickly turns to anger. Why is he still out here? What is he doing? Come on, God, I argue out loud. How can he be so stuck? And then I pause and suck in my breath in recognition.
I’ve gotten stuck in my life. I wish I could get stuck in something in a little more pleasant, like joy or peace or thanksgiving, but I seem to get stuck in pride and fear and disillusionment. I’ve gotten stuck in unemployment and bad eating habits too. I cut a glance at the young man in my rearview mirror as I turn onto the freeway. He is running toward an outstretched hand, and all I can think about is God’s endless mercy. Maybe we are all more powerful than we realize.
Another homeless man taught me that. Years ago, long before the thought of writing a book ever occurred to me, I was driving home from work, zooming under that same freeway overpass about five blocks from my home, when I happened to notice a clump of blankets. They were sitting on the narrow ledge up at the top where the slanted concrete meets the freeway. I looked down and saw a couple of grocery carts parked on the sidewalk.
I remember how it terrified me. Absolutely terrified me. To think that every night I was zooming past such tremendous need and I had absolutely no idea how to respond or make it better. I considered leaving food. I toyed with the notion of pre-paid grocery cards. But everyone told me not to. They said I’d be in danger. I did it anyway. An hour later, though, I felt just as unsatisfied as I had before. Nothing had changed.
Then one morning, I was serving breakfast at Inspiration Café and I decided to ask Michael Purnell what I should do. He’d been homeless. I figured he must know. I launched into my dilemma. Michael listened closely, nodding occasionally. I told him how I’d been taught to always acknowledge people, to smile, to say ‘Good morning,’ to look them in the eye. “But what is that in the scheme of things?” I asked.
Michael smiled. He took a sip of his coffee, and then with great tenderness said, “Never underestimate what a ‘Good morning’ will do. When I was out there, I was dead to myself. I didn’t think I existed. But you say ‘good morning’ to me, and then I think, ‘Hey, I must still be here. I can’t see me. But you see me. So I must still be human.’”
Thinking about that young man standing on that same slice of concrete day after day, I can’t help but be reminded of the infinite compassion of God and the power of our love. The next time I see him I’ll smile and wave. I’ll give him money. I’ll bug him about going to Inspiration Café.
I know I don’t have the answers for how to make his life better. But I do know that every person has the capacity to reveal something of God, to remind us of how we are all called to love. And if there is no limit to God’s grace, then there should be no limit to mine.