A few weeks ago, I was mistaken for a homeless woman.
That’s right. Homeless!
In my lifetime, I’ve been mistaken for a few things; most notably tennis champion Steffi Graf who is at least five inches taller than I am. Maybe it’s our unusual noses.
On what was adding up to be just another Saturday afternoon where I had finished my weekly Target run, I was asked to vacate the sidewalk outside of Braum’s, our local burger and ice cream restaurant.
Sure, I wasn’t looking my best. I was wearing a plain t-shirt, had no make-up on and my hair was up in a ponytail – but vagrant, really?
Honestly, I was offended but more than anything I was shocked.
You see, as I was getting out of my car to go into Braum’s, I had come across one of the most heartbreaking of circumstances – a desperate and suicidal homeless man. His name was Donnie and he was talking about jumping off the Lindsey Street overpass. I knew this could have been delusional ramblings brought on by mental illness, dehydration or drugs but it didn’t matter to me.
Behind his glasses I saw this man’s sad eyes and broken spirit. How could I possibly step over him and go about buying lunch for my family?
“Are you alright?” I had asked him.
He paused and looked up at me. The years of trauma were legible in the deep wrinkles in his face. He shook his head and then looked back down at the sidewalk.
“Are you sure I can’t help you?” I persisted.
“No, thank you.”
I looked at the heavy, old and frayed backpack he was carrying. It was the physical embodiment of the burden he was carrying in his heart.
“You don’t seem like you are okay. What’s wrong?”
Finally, he looked up at me with tears streaming down his face and shook his head, “You have no idea, ma’am.” He paused for several seconds. “I am getting ready to walk across to the overpass and jump off of that bridge onto the highway. I have nothing to live for.”
“Whoa,” I thought to myself. My family’s lunch could wait.
I took a seat next to him right there on the sidewalk.
“I am not going to let you do that,” I said. I could tell my concern confused him.
“Why would you care about me?” he asked. “Why do you care if I jump? You don’t even know me,” he continued.
My answer was simple, “Because you are a human being. You are God’s child, and He doesn’t want you to jump. Neither do I.”
Twenty minutes later, I had learned Donnie’s life story. He had grown up in Pink, Oklahoma where from the ages of ten to eighteen he had spent his summers patrolling his father’s marijuana fields. His father had armed him with a rifle and instructed him to point it at anyone who came onto their property then escort them to the house.
“I didn’t have a chance, ma’am. I became an addict as a young boy and have been one ever since. I don’t have family, I don’t have a place to live. I suffer from extreme anxiety and depression, and I am tired of living this way. So that’s why I am going to jump.”
“Not today, Donnie. I am not going to let you do that. I care about you.”
He looked at me with utter confusion.
Once he had unburdened himself, Donnie seemed more relaxed so I asked him if he would like some lunch or a cup of coffee. The offer of warm food and coffee made him beam.
“Coffee? Oh I love coffee!”
Sadly, when I stood up and told him I would be right back, he suspected it was a ploy. Donnie begged me not to call the police on him. That was the furthest thing from my mind and I promised him I wouldn’t.
Inside Braum’s, the kind staff was curious and concerned about Donnie. By the time I went back outside with Donnie’s coffee and lunch, he was crying again.
“I don’t know that there is a God,” he confessed. “Because if there is, HOW could he let that happen to me when I was a child? I was abused and had the worst childhood you could imagine. I suffer for it every day. I don’t think God really loves me, because if He did He wouldn’t let that happen to me.”
I took a deep breath. This was a conversation I’d had many times and it never got any easier. Simply put, bad things happen to good people and we cannot explain it.
The only thing I could say, which I knew in my heart to be true, was that God loved Donnie right where he was and in whatever condition he was in. I told him that God wanted a relationship with him. As I explained how he could begin one, an older couple stepped out of their car and practically climbed over us as they indignantly scoffed.
They marched straight into the restaurant to complain about the “derelict couple” sitting outside the restaurant.
That’s what they saw. They didn’t see a concerned woman trying to talk this child of God off the ledge.
Because of their misleading characterization, the manager of the restaurant was put in the position of addressing the complaint. It turned out there wasn’t just one complaint about us, but TWO. I refused to feel anger toward the manager who I knew was just doing her job. Instead I chuckled at the absurdity and the spectacle we were apparently creating. I looked up at her with hope in my heart and explained the truth of the situation.
I was not disappointed. Far from shunning us, the manager spoke to us with compassion in her voice, “So why don’t you come inside and eat that hamburger?” I exhaled with relief and smiled at her kindness.
I encouraged Donnie to wash his hands before eating his burger. While Donnie was in the restroom, two of the cashiers came over to my table.
“What you are doing is so nice,” they said earnestly.
As much as I appreciated the compliment, I wanted them to know it wasn’t nice, it was the right thing to do. I wanted them to remember that when you pass a homeless person or any person in need, it is actually Jesus that you are looking at. He is wondering if you will step over Him or if you will sit down and lend Him a hand.
It was a life lesson for all of us that day, a reminder that none of us is better than anyone.
Donnie hadn’t been in a restaurant in years. His home if you can call it that, was the shore of a creek where he slept every night. He was nervous when he returned to the table, still unsure if he was welcome. I assured him that we were paying customers so he had the same right as anyone else to sit at a clean table and eat.
An older customer came over to our table and handed Donnie a package of cinnamon rolls. “Here is something sweet for you after you eat your hamburger.” The lady and I exchanged smiles as Donnie thanked her. He was stunned at the generosity he was receiving.
As he sipped his coffee, I suggested to Donnie that he start talking to God, praying and asking for help. He seemed open to the idea so I got out a sheet of paper and wrote a short prayer for him.
“Thank you, God for letting me live another day. Please give me wisdom and guidance about whatever is bothering me. I will give my problems to You.”
I also wrote down some resources for him (our local homeless shelter and my church’s food pantry). After an hour, I told him I had to be on my way. I left him with some money, but more importantly I left him with a genuine and heartfelt promise.
“Donnie, my son Aidan is a prayer warrior. He prays over many people right now who need help. I promise you that Aidan and I will pray for you every single night.”
This made Donnie break down into tears, “You would do that for me? But I’m a stranger! A homeless man you have never met before.”
“Yes,” I told him emphatically. “That is what we should do for each other. We are all worthy of love. And if you pray, I promise that things will start to get better. God just wants to hear from you. Right now, in this very moment He doesn’t care that you are an addict. You don’t have to get things straightened out before you start a relationship with Him. He wants you now, just as you are. He loves you.”
I could see Donnie absorbing and processing my words. After a few seconds he looked up at me with a little bit of trust in his eyes.
“Can I ask you for one last thing before you go?”
“Can I get a hug?”
I have to admit, his request made me very nervous. He was pushing me out of my comfort zone but what choice did I have, really? This man was deserving of love, which he had never experienced.
I hugged him. He hadn’t showered in weeks, maybe months. But he clung to me and wouldn’t let go. The emotion I felt broke my heart. As someone who experienced infertility and had to fight to bring my children into this world, I was so moved by Donnie’s story of not receiving love from his parents. He was worthy of love. And so I hugged him right back.
That afternoon has stayed with me. I have since been in contact with our local Food and Shelter for Friends. I was happy to hear they were well acquainted with Donnie and that he even had a case worker. I am also grateful to the Braum’s staff for their kindheartedness and compassion on that day.
I have long believed that our job as Christians is to be the hands and feet of Jesus. “But what does that mean, Mom – to be the hands and feet of Jesus?” Aidan asked me when I shared the story with him later that day.
Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Catholic Saint and nun once said, “Christ has no body but yours, no hands but yours, no feet on earth but yours, yours are the eyes through which He looks, Christ’s compassion on this world…Yours are the hands with which He is to bless men now.”
Coincidentally, this was a theme in a recent sermon at my church. The guest speaker was Dr. Amy Oden, a Professor of Early Church History and Spirituality at the Saint Paul School of Theology at OCU. She said, “We should heighten our awareness of injustice and suffering; go into the world and make a difference. The more we practice mindfulness the more we can be changed inside and out.”
Each and every night, Aidan and I pray for Donnie – that he would know how much God loves him and that he would realize his life has purpose.
I am deeply thankful for this unexpected lesson in love while running a simple errand.
I truly wonder if we can extinguish stigmas of addiction, mental illness, and even homelessness and instead approach them with love and compassion?
When we come upon someone who needs help, will we step over them? Or instead will we be more mindful? Will we be an angel to them, using our hands and feet so that God can bless them?