Last night I told Shane I was going to call my mom. I thought it was because I needed a copy of our by-laws to help a friend who is starting a nonprofit, but God had something else to say to me through our conversation.
“I just want to encourage you, Shay…” she paused, and I could feel her intensity through the phone. She took a deep breath and continued. “Ever since the robbery, I just… I know that you haven’t been…” she cleared her throat and swallowed. She spoke softly. “Put your camera back around your neck baby girl. Write it down…”
“I know that when it was taken from you, it was easier to assign no value to it, to say ‘it’s a thing, a physical thing’ and put a wall up… so that it won’t get taken from you again. So that you don’t get hurt.”
I stared straight ahead into the darkness on the other side of the windshield and held my breath. Truth has a way of resonating, so that it repeats itself a thousand times in my brain like a never ending echo…
“God gave you a voice. He’s waiting for you… He’s waiting for you to write again.”
So here we are. A blank piece of paper and a keyboard. Never knowing exactly why I’m doing this or what God will write down through my fingertips… with everything in my physicality pulling away in a storm of fear, or doubt, or grief. There are still so many days that I remember a photo, or a memory, or a story that I wrote down one time… and I realize that it’s all gone into the void, lost somewhere into the depths of my memory, where I can only hope that someday I will drag out those details into my consciousness and try again. I cry sometimes. I blame myself and defend the justice of God’s plan. I focus on living and loving and growing and I push all of my pain out into the night sky and hope that the stars will absorb it and transform it into something bright and beautiful.
Hope drags my fingers back to these tiny black keys…
I was still on the phone with my mother when I looked out my window at the brick wall of the building next to the gas station where we were parked. On the other side of the guard rail, where a small cluster of bushes were planted to surround a little tree, I could see a stocking cap and the white fringe of his jacket liner. I wasn’t wearing my glasses, so I squinted through my blurry vision and could see the dark figure of a man, curled up on the rocks between the bushes and the guard rail. I turned my head to look at Shane and realized that he had pulled himself up by the steering wheel to look… his eyes met mine and we nodded.
After saying goodbye to my mom, I asked Shane if we should go talk to him or leave him a care package.
“I don’t want to wake him up,” he told me quietly, and I agreed. But we absolutely couldn’t leave until we had offered to help, even if that meant waiting for a while. As we spoke, I could hear a loud voice in the parking lot ranting angrily about something I couldn’t understand. Shane twisted around to look through the back window and watched, but I couldn’t see what was happening. When he turned back around I followed his gaze into my side mirror and watched a scrawny little man hobble into my view. He was ranting to himself, with his head down and his back hunched over, and by the number of jackets he was wearing and the bag that he carried, I’m guessing he wasn’t really going anywhere. As the traffic light over the intersection turned red, and cars began to line the street in front of the gas station, the man began screaming “WHY? WHY? WHY?” at the cars that were waiting for green.
A woman in a light green SUV rolled her window down, and held a lit cigarette out the window. Across the sidewalk, the man may have thought that she was inviting him to continue, because he began screaming at her. “I see you! In your fancy car…”
I watched the sleeping man on the other side of the guard rail during this shouting match, and he moved just slightly. Maybe this will wake him up… I turned to look at Shane and realized that two squad cars were pulling in on the other side of the station. Lights, but no sirens, they pulled up right behind the screaming man and I heard the sound of the doors opening.
I sighed a deep breath. “Damn. There he goes.” I told Shane, thinking that the cops were arresting him for disturbing the peace. But I heard a voice outside the truck say “we’re just doing him a favor. He’s not under arrest, we’re going to take him home.”
The words echoed in my mind… “home.”
Where is home for this man? Do they consider the shelter to be home? If he wanted to go home, he would already be there, right? I’m reminded of a scene in a movie where a homeless man is forced by the police to go to the shelter in winter because of the temperature, but evil people at the shelter kill him within minutes of his arrival. Sometimes, the street is the safest place….
The man lying on the rocks on the other side of the guard rail was moving now. He was pulling himself up by the iron fencing that surrounded the front of the brick building. I whispered “lay low dude, the cops are here. Don’t let them take you home too…” and the man took a step into the shadows and looked at me over his shoulder. I wondered if he had heard me. He kept his back to the police cars until they had turned onto the street and headed for downtown. Shane and I practically jumped out of the truck. Something specific was on my mind.
What kind of situation brings someone to lie down in the rocks next to a gas station and fall asleep?
We create a few scenarios, like that the man is drunk. That he’s homeless or very poor. That he is unstable at the least, and possibly very ill. But we just won’t know until we go find out.
As I took a few steps toward him, the image of Connie’s tent flashed into my mind. She had told me about the tent a few days ago and this morning when we left her house we loaded it up into the truck. It’s a nice tent, but my mind began to think that this man who had slept on the gravel might not want or need it… as soon as I had the thought it was gone, replaced by the sound of my own footsteps on the pavement as I approached the brick wall.
“Hey dude, how’s it going?” I asked him when I was only a few feet away. He glanced at me and turned to lean against the iron fence. “I’m okay,” he muttered.
I leaned my back against the brick and watched him. “We saw you sleeping over here until that man was picked up by the police. Just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
He was watching me now with raised eyebrows as he slowly lowered himself onto the brick base of the fence to sit. “Oh, I’m okay. Yeah I saw that…” he said shaking his head toward the gas station as I took a few steps closer and sat next to him on the brick. Our eyes met and I smiled. “I’m Shay,” I said as I held out my hand. He smiled back at me and shook my hand. “Jerry. Pleased to meet ya.”
He looked a lot like my friend Joseph, and I told him so. I think it was the beard that reminded me, or maybe his bright blue eyes, the color of the sky on a clear summer day. Of course this man has no idea who Joseph is or how much I love him, but he chuckled and said “I’ll tell you something honey, I’m a full blooded Hobo, the likes of which you’ve never met. I’ll be honest with ya, I just fell asleep there because I was drunk. Just walkin along and passed out there in the weed patch. I’m telllin ya the truth now!” he waived his finger at me with a sparkle in his eyes.
“Where do you normally sleep Jerry? Do you stay at the shelter, or somewhere around here?” I asked, knowing that we were on our way to the men’s shelter in the next 15 minutes so that the boys could eat dinner.
“No honey I don’t stay there. And you shouldn’t either! I don’t like those places. They’re institutional, and they’re just creating more problems. I sleep in the woods, or in the weed patch,” he said with a smile. “I love the weed patches. I was just drunk, I’m sorry honey.”
Shane was already sitting on the guard rail and had introduced himself. He nodded at Jerry and muttered “it’s alright man, it happens.”
“Why don’t you like the shelter? At least it’s warm,” I asked him with a notion of what his answer might be. “It’s an institution, for the drunk, mentally ill and the bums, a place where they decide you’re crazy and say there is something wrong with you. I’m a full blooded Hobo honey, and I’m happy. But in this world, if you don’t play by their rules…” he shook his head.
“They want to fix you.” I said with sadness, knowing all too well what he meant. People think we’re broken because we don’t have houses, instead of recognizing that we are all broken, every single one of us… with or without the house.
“Well, we’re travelers, and we met a woman here in Ohio that gave us a tent this morning. We sleep in our trucks so we don’t need it, and I was thinking that if you would like it, you can have it…” I told him with a nod to Shane. “Well sure I’ll take a look at it,” he said.
When Shane returned from the back of the truck carrying Connie’s tent, he was more than pleased. He told us that he’s been a “full blooded Hobo” his whole life. I asked him if he had family, and he said that he “used to have a wife and kids.” I must have made a funny face because he clarified. “It’s not like they died, they just got taken away from me. It’s my fault. I used to be on the hard stuff, and I messed my life up pretty good. She took the kids, and I can’t blame her. It’s my fault.” I watched his eyes grow sad as he explained, and he said that was a long time ago. He said he loves his life now, and that he lives this way because it brings freedom and liberation. He said he lays his head down at night without any worry…
I imagined Jerry laying his head down in the “weed patch” worry free, and couldn’t quite grasp the idea. He must have read my mind, because he started shaking his head. “God takes care of me out here. And you literally saved my life with that tent!” he told Shane while he pointed at the blue bundle lying next to his book bag.
Jerry is 73 years old. I almost didn’t believe him at first but the closer I looked at the dirty wrinkles around his eyes and the way his shoulders hunched over… his nose must have been broken more than once in his life the way it veered sharply to the right, and it appeared that parts of his face were swollen while other parts were old and tired. He probably is 73, although I don’t like to imagine anyone at that age laying their head down in a weed patch. I asked him how long he had been on the road, and he said it’s been more than 40 years now. “Sometimes it gets tough. I get to feeling sorry for myself. But you know what it means when you feel sorry for yourself? It means you know it’s your own fault. You’re just dealing with it…”
While Shane was gone inside the gas station getting me chocolate milk, Jerry said he had something to give me. He turned his back to me and stood up, a little wobbly in the same way that my grandmother is wobbly, and reached his hand into his coat pocket.
A moment later he was holding a folded 20 dollar bill in front of my face. I was shaking my head no and he was demanding that I take it. I was telling him that we are fine, and he was telling me that “trucks like that one don’t run on water.” He pressed the money into my hand as Shane came back from the store with my chocolate milk.
Within a few moments they were talking about our dream of converting the truck to run on vegetable oil and I was realizing that if we didn’t leave soon, we would miss dinner at the shelter. I interrupted to mention that fact, and Shane nodded. Rob was asleep in the truck because he hadn’t been feeling very well, but I knew that he and Shane both needed to eat a hot meal. We had a couple of turkey and cheese sandwiches in the truck, but hot food has a positive effect on the body. I’ve noticed it more since I began fasting. When we stood up to go, Jerry protested. “No, don’t go there! Forget that place. You got that money and you can go to McDonalds later or something.” I knew that we weren’t going to spend Jerry’s money on McDonalds, but something told me that we were supposed to stay. If we didn’t get a hot meal today, we would get one tomorrow. God is in the details.
So when three women walked across the parking lot to ask if we were hungry, I whipped around so fast I almost fell off the guard rail. Shane started to say no, probably because he was thinking about those turkey and cheese sandwiches that Connie had given us, but I nodded my head passionately up and down. “We just saw you sitting here, and we thought you might need something to eat,” one of the women explained.
I asked Jerry if he would like a meal and he said no thank you, that he was fine. I’m fasting, so I told her that we had another guy in the truck so if we could get 2 meals that would be great. Two of the women walked away to get food out of a van, while the woman who first approached us asked if Shane knew God.
I turned my back to her and kept my head low, so that I could watch. Jerry was muttering… “of course we know God, he keeps us alive.”
Shane nodded, but I know he doesn’t like this question. He probably wanted to ask her the same thing, but didn’t want to seem rude…
“Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God?” she asked him next. Shane said “yes” with a smile on his face.
The woman said “good! That’s good! Have you been saved?”
About this time I was wondering what her name was, and if she was ever going to introduce herself. Building relationships… I wanted to stop her right there and say “Doesn’t this feel manipulative? You just offered us food, and now you’re going to interrogate our spirituality? I don’t even know your name!” But I bit my tongue. Shane had an answer…
“What’s your definition of ‘saved’?
“See, we want people to confess with their mouths that Jesus is Lord, that he died on the cross for our sins, and that he rose from the dead. When you believe that, you will be saved!”
Shane was agreeing with her in the way of placation. I knew he was searching for words to say, and I could feel the tension rising in the air between Jerry, Shane and this woman, but I still remained silent. I fixed my eyes on the brick wall in front of me until the other two women reappeared with two bags of food. I turned to accept the gift, and she explained that there was hot soup in the bag. I thanked her and God simultaneously, noting that His provision is remarkable and beautiful. The woman speaking to Shane sounded like she was wrapping up her salvation speech, and she ended it by asked a great question. “Are you in need of prayer for anything? Is there something I can pray for?”
Shane shook his head no, and when I glanced up at his face in surprise I realized he had a smile plastered on his lips but his eyes told me he just wanted her to go away. I looked back at the brick wall and answered the woman behind me.
“If you asked me what I would pray for right now, it would be…” I felt my eyebrows furrow and something happened. When I had no idea what to say just a moment ago, or where to find the words to plant inside this woman, suddenly my mouth was open and my lips were moving. “… it would be your ministry. You guys are doing a great work by cooking meals for people, and obviously you are attentive and observant or you wouldn’t have noticed us sitting over here, but please remember that all good ministry is dependent on relationships. That’s how Jesus did it, and that’s how God does it. He builds relationships. I’m Shay…” and I held out my hand to shake theirs. The three women introduced themselves and I introduced them to Shane and Jerry. I said “You’ve got it right, when they asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was, he said ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and Love thy neighbor as thyself’ so remember that faith without works is dead. We believe, and that belief should change us radically from the inside out. We put the physical effort in and God does the rest. So thank you again for the warm meal, and I just want to encourage you in your ministry to build these relationships and get to know the people that you are helping. When you learn about people, you really learn how to love better…”
A few moments later I listened as the woman prayed for my struggles and my suffering, and I wondered. Do they know that they already answered one of my prayers tonight? and will they pray for Jerry? But the spirit of God whispered to my heart. “Everyone has a journey, and it’s a heartfelt prayer. I’m listening…” So I know He will show them the way.
The women hugged me and thanked me for my encouragement, and I asked them to read Isaiah 58. “That’s a promise for you… because of what you do. Please read it.”
After they had gone, Jerry looked at me and nodded. “That’s beautiful. Life is beautiful….”
A woman named Phillis eventually found her way to our part of the parking lot, ranting and raving about how far she had to walk to get over here. I noticed her peeking into Bubba’s windows, where Rob was asleep across the bench seats. I said “Hey!” but not quick enough, and she woke Rob up. When she walked over to Jethro she explained that she had just gotten out of jail, and her knuckles were bloody from a fight with her ex. She told me that she found him with another woman, wearing a jacket that she gave him. So she ripped the jacket off of him and burned it in the middle of the street. She was giggling while she talked, and even Rob was half laughing. It’s remarkable what people will do for a little excitement in their lives.
She told me who to call at the shelter, but when they asked her name, and I told them, they said she wasn’t allowed to come over. When I relayed the information to Phillis, she said she has a friend who lives in an apartment by the airport, but she can’t walk that far. I considered the idea of giving her a ride, but the thought made me uncomfortable. I remembered Jerry’s 20 dollar bill in my pocket.
“How about we call you a cab?” I said as I glanced at Shane. He nodded at me, his eyes telling me he was thinking the same thing. The woman jumped up and down, saying “Really? But you guys need it! You live in your truck right?” I told her we’re fine, and we want to help her get inside tonight. Her eyes were wide and she clutched something hanging around her chest. She looked at Shane and turned her back to him, pulling her hair around to the side. “Hey, help me take this off so I can give it to her…” she said as her fingers found the latch on a chain around her neck. Shane looked at me, confused. I shrugged at him, wondering what was going on. He helped her with her necklace as I dug the twenty out of my pocket. “You don’t need to do that,” I told her.
Phillis held out a silver chain with a tag dangling from the bottom. “It says ‘Friends’ and it has four little diamonds on the corners. Diamond is my birthstone, and I have four children that have been taken from me by the state.”
The tag hangs from the rearview mirror in Jethro to remind me that Jerry didn’t know he was going to help Phillis get inside for the night, that Connie didn’t know that her tent was going to save Jerry’s life, or that her sandwiches were going to provide for all of us and Phillis too, and that the women from the church didn’t know that their hot meals were going to be a direct answer to prayer… But God brought us all together in one Columbus night.
“If you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness and your night will become like the noonday.” Isaiah 58:10