My mind was still touched by the beauty of the scene under the bridge as I sat on my friend Jessica’s couch many hours later. I was incessantly replaying the moving image of the girl with long brown hair playing her guitar on a fold-out chair next to a shack pieced together with bits of old plywood and dirty sheets. Her chair rested on squares of carpeting covered in red dirt, the bright orange glow of the setting sun creating a line of light that slowly worked its way up the walls of the underpass, past the sweet sound of her songs being spoken into the perfect spring breeze that releases the chains of winter. I could hear the movements of people in the tents above the wall, nestled into the 6 foot gap between the concrete and the bottom of the bridge. As the outreach team gathered around the notes reverberating from the strings of the guitar and the melody of a song that no one knows but her, I noticed the faces of people peering out from their tents and safe places as the spirit moved them toward this sweet, honest poet.
Who is this girl? I asked the question to my heart and it whispered an answer that made me want to giggle out loud. “She’s your sister. Duh.”
At the next campsite, as everyone gathered around the campfire and she played her heart out, a woman named Dawn requested a specific tune. “You know that one, Fly Away?”
As the girl named Jennifer strummed the notes on the guitar and found the right key, I held my breath with anticipation. “When I die, Hallelujah By and By, I’ll fly away…”
I told Shane about Jennifer as we sat on the couch hours later, recounting our day’s events and sharing moments of Glory in South Carolina. He told me a story about his afternoon at the AutoZone where he was working on whatever was causing that knocking noise in the engine.
“I was cranking so hard with that wrench and not getting anywhere,” he told me. I remembered how frustrated he was while we were there with him this morning, muttering curse words under his breath as he streaked more oil across his cheek with his forearm. I wondered why I haven’t retained more of the details of mechanics as I’ve watched him work. I told myself to pay more attention next time as he continued his story…
“This guy came up and offered his help. He took one end and I took the other and we pounded and pulled until we got it out of there. I was so grateful that I told him we had all sorts of stuff in the back of the truck, and asked him if he wanted to take a look and see if he needed anything. I think he was going to say no because he was just a good guy, but I told him I had some extra tools he could have.
“He looked really interested so I pulled out my toolbox and opened two of the drawers. I told him he could take whatever he needed out of there…. But this guy just takes one tool from each drawer and said that these would really help him out. He said it was all he needed.” Shane’s wide eyes were my favorite shade of blue-green as he told this part of the story; pure joy at the blessing of blessing someone.
“A little while later this guy walks across the parking lot where somebody pulled in and is tryin to work on their car. He pulls out the tools I gave him and fixes this dude’s car! I swear, I watched him do it. And the dude paid him for it! He made money. It was awesome.”
Have you ever heard someone say “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime”? Sometimes we need to make sure that the man has a fishing pole first. Everyone has a talent or a skill. Sometimes the tools that will channel that passion is the best gift we can give them.
Shane’s story reminded me of the day we did a big give away on the corner of Poplar and Danny Thomas in Memphis, and I saw a man standing back from the crowd with a thoughtful look on his face. When he caught me looking at him he gave me a weak smile, so I walked up next to him to ask him his thoughts on all this stuff. He said he didn’t really need anything, he was just wondering what we were doing over here. I told him about meeting Gregory in that spot, and he smiled as he muttered that he wished something like that would happen to him. “When do I get to be Gregory…?” he mumbled with a sad smile and a hint of sarcasm as he examined the pavement. I told him that God wants to give us all exactly what we need, exactly when we need it. He asked me, “what do I need?” and I shrugged and smiled.
Sure enough, later in conversation, that same man had mentioned to Shane that he was a barber by trade. Shane asked him if he needed a set of clippers, and the man smiled a shy grin and said “yes! Maybe I could start me a little business down here, cut people’s hair. In fact, I know I could. I’ve done it before.” Shane was smiling but the man wasn’t catching on. He didn’t know that Shane had a full set of blades and hair clippers in the truck. So the man mumbled in the direction of the pavement. “Hm. Maybe that’s really what I need…”
When Shane walked up to him a few moments later with the clippers in his hand, I could hear the astonishment in the man’s voice. “What?! You actually have these? And you’d give them to ME? Why?” He looked over his shoulder in my direction, and around the parking lot as if I was about to tell him there was a hidden camera and it was all a practical joke. Shane answered him, “So you can cut hair.”
The man clutched the clippers to his chest in joy and walked straight in my direction with his eyes wide and his mouth half open with an intense joy. “Did he give you what you needed?” I said with a grin, not realizing until after the words had slipped from my mouth that I wasn’t referring to Shane. The man whispered “How did He do that?” with his eyes lifted to the sunshine in awe.
As I retold that story to Shane and Rob on the couch at my friend Jessica’s house tonight, Rob shared an experience he had when he came down with the flu in Columba. We had been parked behind the library, but Rob had been sick all night and needed to be close to a bathroom so that he could stop vomiting in between the trucks. He moved down the street to park at the closest available public restroom that was open at 2am, the IHOP.
“About an hour after I parked there, I was still throwin up sick, and this guy came up the window and said he needed a ride up the street. I couldn’t give him one because there was no way I could drive, and I told him I was sorry and I felt bad that I couldn’t do it.
“He had originally come up to the window asking if he could draw me a picture in exchange for a ride. He said he could draw really well, but I noticed he didn’t have anything to draw on. When I told him I couldn’t give him a ride I asked if he needed some paper and stuff to draw with and he was really happy about that. Like I just gave him a notebook and a couple pens and it made something better for him.”
Rob hesitated, mumbling that he still wishes he could have given him a ride. But I had to take a second to just appreciate these stories. Each time, we were giving someone the tools that they needed to spill their talent onto the world. In Shane’s story it’s profoundly literal, because Shane actually gave the guy TOOLS. And then they were used to help someone else. The guy came to Shane with nothing but good intentions, and he left the parking lot a step ahead with tools in his hand. I love it.
Shane had more good stories from the day, like when he walked up to a man in the parking lot that had been tinkering with his car for a second and offered his help. I could see this in my mind’s eye, because we had come back to the AutoZone in between going to visit a friend’s grandparents and joining the volunteer group for street outreach. I had looked for him around Jethro and when I didn’t see him I made the assumption that he was inside talking to the guys behind the counter or looking for something he needed, as he often does when he’s working on the trucks. But Rob and I laughed when we found him leaning over the engine of an older man’s car with a wrench in his hand, pointing out some mechanical wizardry in a confident tone. He was wearing blue coveralls, and I wondered if the employees were confused by this young man who dresses as if they pay him to provide free consultations. When I walked past the truck to go inside, he grinned at me with black smudges all over his face, hands and arms covered in oil up to the elbow. Rob chuckled “of course you are…” and I knew that Shane didn’t need to come with us to meet the volunteers. He was already doing outreach right here.
As we sat on Jessica’s couch, Shane was able to fill us in on the details of what we missed. Of course he fixed the man’s car, and he did it for free. The car had been dying every 10 minutes, so the man had been unable to really drive it anywhere for a few days. Shane explained that the man didn’t have the 30 dollars for the part, so Shane rigged up a solution that will work for the time being. Before he drove away, he gave Shane two dollars, apologizing that he couldn’t give him more.
I thought to myself that there are times when our personal need for two dollars takes a simple situation like this and brings us to our knees. Shane was performing a random act of kindness, expecting only to give as much as possible. God loves surprises, and two dollars from a very poor man is a tremendous gift. It’s the gospel story of the widow’s mite and her sacrificial gift, alive and in color. And James told us that “all good things come from the Father of the Heavenly Lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” so we always know who to thank first when things like this happen.
The blessing of that perspective brought so much meaning to our conversation on the couch as Shane continued the story, telling us about a man who walked up to the truck just as he was loading up the last of his tools and our donation tubs.
“He asked if he could help me with anything, and I explained that the truck was already fixed. He told me he was having a rough day,” Shane paused with a moment with a twinkle in his eye before he continued. “And you know what he said? He said ‘I was hoping you needed some help honestly, because I’m trying to catch this bus right here and I just need 2 dollars.’”
Shane smiled and I slapped my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing outright. Of course he did! It’s a perfect circle! God knows that today, two dollars isn’t going to make or break anything. By grace, we’re going to make it to Atlanta with or without the two dollars, and since God gives us exactly what we need for each day, no more and no less, we aren’t afraid to release any and all abundance into the Glory of the Kingdom. He gave Shane’s empty pockets exactly two dollars, from the pocket of a poor man, knowing that Shane would receive and appreciate the blessing… and then we see God’s magnificence as He precisely reveals himself and his involvement with another person’s needs as we are called to empty those pockets once again. Daily He draws us into Faith so that He can show off, I’m sure of it…
After Shane’s stories about the gifts of talent and tools, and the recognition of profound metaphor woven throughout his day in the parking lot, I needed to share some of the Glory that we saw on the streets. We talked about Jennifer’s songs around the campsites that evening, and when he mentioned that he wished he could have heard her play, I was able to pull out a video that we had taken on Rob’s phone. He watched her sing with his eyebrows raised and a smile on his face. As I listened to the music, I remembered the end of the night, just before we left to have this conversation on Jessica’s couch. Jennifer had spoken to us both while standing on the sidewalk outside of a local fast food restaurant with her sweet tea on the tailgate.
Her eyebrows had furrowed together, her eyes were closed most of the way and she used her hands to emphasize the passion with which she spoke. It was as if her heart was being transformed into words.
“I just want to get broken.”
She paused for a moment and I thought of the tears in Dawn’s eyes as Jennifer sang that sweet song for her. “I’ll fly away O Glory, I’ll fly away…” and the way she clutched my hand during prayer. I thought of the hug I had watched them share and the sparks that flew in my brain as though I was watching some part of myself, or maybe the Jesus that is inside of us come to life before my eyes.
“It’s like Jordan said in his prayer tonight, the food and water will pass away but the hope will last…” she said with deep sincerity. “I need to really connect with people and express myself. Music helps me do that.”
As I talked to Shane about it tonight, I realized I was given the opportunity to see Jesus playing a guitar and singing praises under a bridge at a “homeless camp” today… and He seemed to belong there, as though that’s who He hangs out with when He’s not at work telling everyone to stop oppressing the poor and to share our stuff, love our neighbor, feed the hungry, welcome the lost.
I remembered riding in the van back to the Salvation Army with the rest of the volunteers when a cell phone rang. I heard one of the girls tell the driver that someone needed two lunch bags out of the van before we made it to the road. The driver laughed and stopped the van, and I jumped out of my seat so that we could reach the brown paper bags. That’s when I saw Jennifer prancing toward the truck just before she landed a few feet away, hands and arms exalted above her head, with a gigantic grin on her face. Rachel handed her two sack lunches and two bottles of water, and she bounced back down the trail, the driver reminding her to bring Jordan along when she goes.
Only then did I remember the conversation that had occurred in the van on the way down to the bridge. A man lives in a tent that is separated from the rest of the camp, in the woods along this muddy dirt road. He prefers to be ‘away from people’ so he’s not always at the campsite. I’ve learned that a lot of campers like to separate. It’s part of why a houseless person might choose camping over shelter life. Everybody needs air. I can think of a few times in my life where I’ve wanted to pitch a tent in the woods and not see anybody for a few days, and I can see how days could easily become years of isolation while I search for my soul in a simple life.
In the van, Rachel smiled to herself as she peered out the window into the darkness and said Jennifer’s name in an affectionate tone. The driver chuckled. “Yeah, I had an idea what that was about when she asked for two lunches…”
Jennifer must know that even people who want some space need love. Even then, the human spirit welcomes kindness and hope. I remember a story that my friend Joseph told me about a time in his life where he took a vow, promising that he would not speak until someone spoke to him first. He experienced a month of uninterrupted silence as the world walked past him. He sadly realized that people don’t do a whole lot of talking to strangers anymore. I remember our trip to New York City, where Rob smiled and said hello to every single one of the people that he walked past, desperately hoping that someone, at some point, would look him in the eye and smile back at him. In the three days that we were in the city, only one man returned his smile. But then I also remember my friend Jeff telling me a story about a man who was going to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge if someone didn’t talk to him in the time it took him to walk half way across. That man is only alive because a couple of tourists stopped to ask him if he would take their smiling portrait. Maybe Jennifer’s sack lunch is a small gesture, but it could be everything… the difference between a good day and a bad one. The difference between silence and music. The difference of Life.
“I want to come with you so bad!” Jennifer told us at the end of the night as we stood around the tailgate. My heart was fiercely reaching out into the universe to manifest a bus in the parking lot. Come on God, You can do anything. Let’s get this caravan going tonight! My spirit recreated Jennifer’s music in my mind, at work in the Kingdom we find under bridges and at campsites. Couldn’t we move some stuff around in the back of the truck? Maybe she could sleep on top of the bins where we give away all of our little bottles of shampoo and travel sized toothpaste. We could make a little pallet up there with the blankets and towels that we just got from Holly in Charleston… My train of thought was interrupted by the conversation around me and eventually the part of me that wanted to stash Jennifer somewhere in the truck gave way to the wisdom of love without possession. She’s on a journey, and I’d be grateful to share mine with her, but it’s not up to me. God knows what He’s doing.
So tonight, Shane and Rob and I sat on Jessica’s couch, absorbing the river that was the current of our day; the truth that presents itself as we follow our hearts. “This is the best life ever,” I whispered. Rob nodded and added his thoughts. “It’s so good, it almost doesn’t seem right to keep it to ourselves.” The Good News is alive and well…