Listening: How stories show us the presence of God

His mom was once homeless, but you would never know. In a blue Superman t-shirt and red cape Velcro-ed to his shoulders, he races back and forth across the lecture hall, tirelessly, his giggle trailing behind him. The wonder in his two-year-old eyes is contagious. He dashes toward his mom, grabs a potato chip from her outstretched hand, and then races full tilt to the door tied with balloons at the back of the room.

The audience is enthralled, smiling and winking at him as they listen to his mom speak about a time before he was born—the years she spent living in a tent along the Chicago River, showering at local shelters and working any number of jobs in the food industry. Kimi became homeless at 18. She’s now 35, happily employed and living in a one-bedroom apartment. I listen to her from the back of the room. She’s surrounded by a group of people whom I’ve come to call family. They are the guest speakers. And like Kimi, they are no longer homeless.

Every year Oakton Community College invites us to speak to their students. Shiriony shares how he used to scorn men and women who were homeless until life propelled him into the same situation. Erick describes having to drop out of college. Rodney, who lived under the viaducts for years, talks about his work in nonprofits. Ericstina, a breast cancer survivor, tells how her marriage survived living in a shelter. And Gloria, who launched her own nonprofit for formerly incarcerated women, reminds us all of the power we have to touch another person’s life.

I met them volunteering to serve breakfast at Inspiration Café. With brightly painted murals and fresh-cut flowers on the tables, Inspiration provides case management, employment services,
culinary arts training, and subsidized housing for men and women working to overcome homelessness and rebuild their lives. Inspiration’s signature piece is that they serve all their meals restaurant-style. Volunteers like myself take individual orders while volunteer cooks prepare each plate. Eggs over easy, blueberry pancakes, sautéed spinach―no request is too much to ask.

A few years into volunteering I started an oral history project that grew into a book, A Recipe for Hope. All six of the speakers are featured in it as well as many others. I think about the others now, wondering where they are. Michael had been homeless for a number of years before he secured housing through Inspiration and started working downtown. I remember how short his interview was—fifteen minutes. It was all about the woman whom he loved, how they met, how they cared about each other, how he worried he wasn’t enough.

At the end of the interview, I asked him what it meant to tell his story, and he said, “This is the first time I have someone in my life that really matters to me. That’s what it means to tell my story.” It was a beautiful thing to say, but I was actually a bit disappointed that the interview was all about her. So I told Michael his story was like a beautiful painting, and we just needed to frame it with some information about him. He said he’d think about it.

A few months later he came up to me after breakfast. He wanted to tell me more. So we met. The interview was fifteen minutes. And it was all about her. I asked him to frame the story with something about himself, and he said, “Yes. Yes.”

“What would you like people to know about you?”

“Oh, no,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t want to talk about that.”

I thanked him. And then I said something that to this day that I’m not very proud of. I told him that his story didn’t really fit in with other stories and that it wouldn’t be included in the book. He stared at me without saying a word. Nervously filling the silence, I promised him that I would type it up so he could give it to her as a gift. He said okay.

Months passed and I started to work on his tapes. I listened to how they sat by the lake, how he read her poetry, how he was afraid he wasn’t smart enough for her, how he couldn’t wait to take her out to the theatre like the men and women he saw getting out of taxis downtown, how he had to go to a thrift shop to get a button down shirt for a wedding they’d been invited to.

I was so busy thinking about what a gift this would be for her, I was blind to what it meant for me. I took a break and went for a walk. And then it hit me. Stopped me cold. When had I ever looked at a homeless person and thought about who they loved?

Or who loved them?

Never.

Michael’s story opened my eyes. We are all human. And we all love.

Every person in the book showed me something I had not seen before. I look toward Kimi. Superman is nestled in her arms, a balloon tied around his wrist. He looks as triumphant as his mom. I imagine God’s love is a lot like Superman—faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. The best part is it doesn’t discriminate. It is here for all of us.

* Of note, Michael’s full story appears in the book. He declined the invitation to speak.

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