“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).
Some years ago, I had to walk several blocks every day from a bus stop to my office. On the way, I usually passed a donut shop, where I sometimes stopped for breakfast.
Just a few yards beyond the shop, a thin, middle-aged man was always camped on the sidewalk awaiting hand-outs from the customers going in and out of the shop. At first I didn’t pay much attention to him, sitting there with his few earthly goods scattered around and a dirty Styrofoam cup in front with “donations” written on it.
But seeing him day after day began to make me feel uneasy. I decided to take another route to work, inventing pretexts for avoiding him. I mean, I really did need to get to work on time. Or, what can one person do that makes a significant difference? And didn’t friends who work with the homeless caution us to never give them money, as it invariably goes to drugs or alcohol? His life, his problem.
But Jesus’ clear instructions to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and generally aid the disadvantaged irritated my conscience. Finally, I stopped at the donut shop one day, bought two egg sandwiches and coffees and went outside. The sidewalk where he sat day after day was none too clean, but I tried to ignore that as I rather self-consciously took a place next to him.
“Hi, I’m Allen, I said, offering my hand. His nails were long and grubby, and a distinct odor emanated from body and clothes that had obviously not been washed in a long time.
“I’m Rich,” he replied. He shook my hand and took the sandwich and coffee that I offered him.
Now my mind went blank. Just what does one talk about with homeless people? The weather? They know all about the weather – they live in it. Finances? This guy’s bank account was in his Styrofoam cup. Work? He only worked on people’s sympathy.
I started with the first thing that came to mind: “How long you been here, Rich?”
Taking a sip of the hot coffee, he said, “About five years.”
“Do you ever sleep in the homeless shelters?”
“Naw, they’re for newbies.”
“Yeah, but doesn’t it get pretty cold in the winter?”
Sometimes, but then I sleep around the corner on Cherry Lane – when I don’t get chased away by the cops. There’s a ventilation vent over there that blows hot air.”
After a while I began to forget what he was and began to think about who he was. I found that it didn’t take much effort to get past his smell and rough character. Under the grimy skin and black nails was a person.
We made small talk, but I had to get to work, so after a while I got up to leave. “I come by here often,” I said. “I’ll stop and talk with you again in a few days.”
“You’re always welcome,” he said, adding, “By the way, next time get donuts. I don’t much care for these...” he waved the sandwich at me.
I was taken aback. Some gratitude. Didn’t I just buy him breakfast and give him fifteen minutes of my precious time? And sandwiches aren’t good enough?
“Uh, yeah, sure,” I replied, my altruistic feelings rapidly seeping from my inflated ego.
However, I did stop again.
After a while I looked forward to my “dates” with Rich. He was in his early fifties and totally reconciled to the life he had chosen for himself. A few years previously he had become disillusioned with society when his wife left him. He drifted around, finally ending up on the streets where, for all the world, he seemed content to stay.
Sometimes he was deliberately bizarre. One day he stared across the street at some people passing by. He held out his arm and pointed at them. “Can’t you just see the spirits hovering around them?” he intoned in an eerie voice.
“Stop it, Rich,” I commanded.
Perhaps this was some sort of defense mechanism, or maybe he was just testing me, but he immediately reverted to his normal voice and never tried that on me again.
Another time a man paused in front of us and dropped some change in Rich’s cup. “Here’s a little something for you guys, he said, smiling.”
You guys? I was nonplussed. I didn’t think I looked homeless, but then what does homeless look like. There are thousands of highly educated people from all strata of society who, through circumstances beyond their control, end up on the streets.
A married friend with four children related to me how overnight, by signing a lucrative contract with an online education company that wanted to use his proprietary software in a national program, he lost house, car, and bank account. Due to a loophole in the contract, he had unwittingly signed away all his worldly possessions. He and his family were literally on the streets the next day. He was so shaken by the experience that, once back on his feet, he studied for the Episcopal priesthood and henceforth devoted his life to helping the homeless.
A year or so later, the company where I worked was forced to downsize, and I found myself out of a job. Instead of seeking new employment, I set up my own consulting firm. Since I worked out of my home, I no longer walked past Rich each morning. One day, however, when I happened to be in town, I stopped to talk with him, telling him about my company and some of my worries.
To my surprise, he began offering me business advice. I had known all along that under that matted, smelly hair there was an intelligent mind, but now I saw him in a new light. His understanding of business led me to believe that he had once been very successful.
That all took place over a decade ago, and I now live on a different continent. I don’t know where Rich is now. I tried Googling the place where we used to chat together, but the donut shop doesn’t seem to be there anymore.
Rich he wasn’t – not in material goods – but I am certainly richer for our acquaintance. I have discovered through it that doing something “for the least of these” can be a two-way street.
Photograph by Geoff Wong from Wikimedia Commons.