I can’t tell you exactly why I pulled out my Bible. Was I planning to read it a bit? Did I simply empty my bag on the table to get organized? Did I pull it out because I needed to clarify a verse for something I was writing? I’m a little fuzzy on that detail, but I think all three factors played into it. The point is, however, it was on “my desk” (aka the Starbucks table I’d completely taken over), and he saw it.
There were several tables outside the Starbucks and I was the only one out there until he came out and sat at the table behind me. He hadn’t been there but a minute when he spoke to me. “Is that your Bible? Are you a Christian? Would you mind praying for me?” All three in rapid succession.
I don’t know how I might have responded not so long ago to that. I probably would have said yes—less out of desire and more out of shame. Like when, ages ago, a new friend asked me to be her prayer partner and meet weekly to pray with her. To be honest, I’d never really done that before, meet weekly with someone and pray out loud, together. But I’m a Christian, and I was embarrassed to say that I wasn’t comfortable with prayer like that, because praying with someone else is weird and intimate… So, because I was too ashamed to be honest I said, “Of course, I’d love to!” It wasn’t perhaps the full truth in the moment, but I prefer to think of it as a prophetic act rather than a lie. I did grow to love it. And that little act of doing the right thing out of shame turned out to be a benefit to me and my walk with God in ways I couldn’t have imagined. In fact, it helped prepare me for this day and this strange man asking if I would pray for him.
The other thing that prepared me for this was more recent. I was at this same Starbucks a month or so before this happened. I had two much coveted hours to crank out some work I needed to do while a kid I was chauffeuring for the afternoon was in swim lessons. I was intense and focused on the work at hand when a young guy (late teens?) came strolling past and asked if I had any money. I wasn’t prepared for that. I gave an honest answer, “I don’t have any cash, I’m sorry.” I didn’t. And I was sorry…and yet I was also probably a little relieved that I didn’t have to decide what to do with my cash if I had it. I say I wasn’t prepared, however, because I was so focused on my work and agenda for the day that I didn’t question if there was something I should do for him. I didn’t have cash, but I could have invited him in and gotten him something from Starbucks with my credit card. I could have invited him to sit and visit a minute. I could have seen him. But I only saw my “to do” list beckoning to me to focus. I gave a literal answer to his question, without stopping to see if there was a deeper question he was really asking, a deeper need that I could meet.
I might not have thought much about it, except for his response to my “I’m sorry.” It shook me up. It grieved me. He turned and shuffled away and with great sadness in his voice he apologized for “bothering me” and then mumbled something about how I wasn’t sorry because I didn’t care. It was less of an indictment about me and more of a statement about how he saw himself. He didn’t think he was worth being cared about…and yet he truly longed for someone to care about him anyway. In that little mumble God alerted me to a world of hurt and neglect and shame and longing. He didn’t need my money nearly so much as he just needed to know someone cared about him. My money would have shown him that he was worth something to me, but so would my time. I had an opportunity to give him both, but missed it because of my focus on my “to do” list. The irony of that is that my “to do’s” were all for work…for ministry. I was too busy doing ministry to actually minister to the person who needed me most in that moment. Ugh.
I cannot tell you how deeply that bothered me. I felt I had missed something really important in that moment. As he walked away I tried to tell him that I really did care, but it was too late. The walls were up and he was done with me. I’d confirmed in a careless instant his worst fears. He’d been brave enough to be vulnerable and to ask, and I’d rejected him without even realizing it. His asking for money wasn’t just about begging for a dollar, it was about so much more…it was a precious moment of risky vulnerability where he offered me a chance to show him that he was worthwhile as a human. If a friend at church, say, had asked me “Hey, do you have a couple bucks?” or, “I don’t have any money, can you get my lunch this time?” It wouldn’t have been the same emotional risk. It would have just been about needing a few dollars. If I say yes, or if I say, sorry, I’m out of cash…either way, our relationship stays the same. Either way, they don’t take it as a sign of their worth as a human being. They haven’t been wounded in that way. They aren’t secretly convinced they are invisible or unwanted or worthless. He was. That request was about far more than money and when I responded simply about the money, I hurt him in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I didn’t have to give him money, that wasn’t the point. What I could have done though was invite him to join me for a minute. I could have asked him to share some of his story with me. I could have shown him that I cared.
I was teaching a Bible study at the jail later that week and told them about my blunder at Starbucks. It had several of the women crying. They too have been homeless. They too know what it’s like to be in need. To feel worthless. To feel invisible. They know the shame of having to ask for handouts. I’m not trying to argue the possibility that they could do something about that. It’s a complicated issue and certainly varies case by case. Regardless of the complexities of the matter, however, no matter how comfortable someone is with begging, it’s nearly always something they also feel shame about. It’s degrading. It takes away their sense of dignity. And what each of those women identified with is the desperate desire to feel they were worth someone’s care and attention.
I won’t go so far as to say I made a resolution to change, but something like that, anyway. I prayed and repented and asked God to give me chances to do better in the future. I didn’t want to so mishandle another person’s soul. I didn’t want to put my work/ministry agenda before actual people. That’s not the way of Jesus. He was always allowing Himself to be interrupted by people and their needs. How can I, as a follower of Him, do any differently?
This is perhaps why, when, months later, a guy at that same Starbucks asked me if I would come pray for him, I didn’t hesitate to put down my agenda and my work, close up my computer, move my chair, and sit with him. “Yes, I’m happy to pray for you. What do you need prayer for?”
His name was Jay. He’s homeless and needs prayer for a place to live. As we talked over the next hour, he shared with me his beautiful faith in God. Childlike faith. Faith that is free of all sense of performance (what would that be like?!). He simply knows that God loves him, and he loves God. We read the Bible together. I bought him some lunch at the BBQ place next door. I prayed for him. He asked if maybe I could come back and do another Bible study with him from time to time. And, he got my number.
I know – many of you will read this and be shocked that I would give my number to a homeless man I just met. I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t felt it was safe. Well, that’s not entirely true—I would do that if I felt God telling me to do it anyway because obedience is more important than “safety”. In this case, however, I knew it was fine to give him my number, and simply a further sign to him of God’s love, a further sign that he mattered as a person. It was a sign to him that I didn’t see him as a person to be feared, or as a project, but as a friend. He promised he wouldn’t abuse it and call too often, but just that he might like some encouragement once in a while. He’s been true to his word, calling once a week or so to touch base, because being single is hard and it’s lonely… and being homeless is even more so—he’s both. And every time he calls, I’m blessed and encouraged by his simple, child-like faith and his great love for Jesus.
I’m sorry that I didn’t “see” that first kid that asked me for money at Starbucks, but it’s largely because of him that I did have eyes to “see” Jay. It’s awkward and difficult and frankly it’s inconvenient, but the reality is people need to be seen. They need to feel they have worth. And the ones who make that the hardest on us are the very ones who need it the most, because they have been denied it the most. I totally confess that I hate being stuck at a stoplight while someone’s on the corner begging for money. What do I do for them? Should I give? Should I not? And I hate how it makes me feel so uncomfortable, because it’s all about me, right? The truth is, it probably makes them feel really uncomfortable, too. Increasingly so as I ignore them. I don’t know how to handle the beggar on the corner when I’m driving by, but when they come to me at Starbucks, where I can sit and visit with them—I’m far more at ease with that. I think it’s because I get a chance to hear their story and to have a relationship with them vs. just being a money machine. I may or may not offer food or money, but I do get the chance to show them they matter as people in whatever way God may lead me to do so. And every. single. time. I ended up being so amazingly blessed and encouraged by them and by their stories.