Out of the corner of my eye I could see the man approaching. Unshaven , haggard face, old worn grey wool coat, gloves with the fingers cut back..I had just glanced at him, not really seeing him, but that was enough.
He advanced from the side of the building as I exited the store. That's where they usually are - nearby store entrances and fast food restaurants, usually, where someone is sure to have the change from the purchase either still in their hand or otherwise easily accessible. They seem to have developed the art of blending into the surroundings, until they're suddenly right beside you.
Leaning in a little too close for what's socially acceptable, he proceeds. I expect the usual, "Do you have a few dollars you can spare?" for the haggling to commence. If you say no, it's usually following by an explanation like, I just need a cup of coffee, my kids need milk and I'm broke, I need to get me some smokes, I just wanna get a hamburger. Growing up in a big city, in the not so affluent area of town, I've heard them all. Often, feeling compassion for these folks, when you offer to buy them a meal, milk, pampers..they'll then get frustrated and just walk away. Not all of them mind you, but too many so that one day, you find you no longer feel as much concern for them.
Except, he says, in a gruff and hoarse voice, "You don't remember me do you?" Now, I can't say I haven't heard that one before. It's actually a good ploy to get you to actually look at them and figure it out, to see if it's true. They're usually lying, or delusional, thinking that in fact you were acquaintances. Hoping you might feel bad for not remembering them and give them something as a result, I often hear this line. But this time, I look, long and hard, the voice actually being a bit familiar.
Suddenly, as I look past his lean, gaunt, bent figure and his graying, unkept hair and beard, I inhale sharply, trying not to appear aghast at the realization that I do in fact know this man.
"Ernie. Yes, I remember you." I say. Suddenly his face lights up because of this recognition, and he becomes even more familiar. He goes on to tell me how he's having a hard time, how he, having once been an addict, got hurt at work, was prescribed pain medication and became addicted to them. He tells me how when the pain medication ran out, he became desperate and went back to the drugs that had enslaved him before.
You see, Ernie attended the church I grew up in. I remember him being an enthusiastic new Christian when I was a youth. Having come to Christ, leaving behind the drug addicted life, he seemed to me no different than anyone else in our congregation. I remember chatting with him here and there, but nothing significant enough to expect what he said next.
"How's your husband? How are your girls? How's your dad doing?" I hadn't seen this man in over 5 years, and yet, he seemed to have kept up with my life, and I felt ashamed that I no longer knew a thing about his and the fact that he had left the church and had fallen to addiction again.
He talked some more. I was shocked by what I heard. I felt so bad about the condition he seemed to be in now. He was fighting an addiction once more, but this time all on his own. He was nearly through, and the toll it had taken on his life, his body and his spirit were painfully evident in his appearance.
When I could finally gather myself. All I could do was encourage him. All I could do was remind him of He who had once pulled him through the pain and shame of addiction. We were only 5 blocks from the church where he had found Christ and happiness. I appealed to him to have courage again to trust God enough to help him once more.
Guilt-ridden, desperate, and looking so alone in that moment, his eyes welled up with tears as he nodded. I placed my hand on his shoulder and asked him if he would let me pray with him. And we did.
He then told me, again to my surprise, how fondly he has thought of me and my husband. How he had been inspired and encouraged by us during those years we attended the same church. I was honestly surprised by how much he felt we had touched his life.
Before he walked away, he turned and said, "Can you help me out with 5 dollars?" I reached in my pocket, and literally, only had three. " I only have 3" I said as I handed them over, feeling horrible that I couldn't give him more. How many times had I said that, or something to that effect, to some stranger, when it just wasn't true?
"Take care of yourself, Ernie." I said. And watched him walk away, blending back into the side of the building.
As I drove off, I felt as though I hadn't given enough. Maybe I should've gone to the ATM, and pulled out more money. Maybe I should have taken him to the church. I could have taken his number and followed up with him.
"Maybe you gave him exactly what he needed" my husband said when I shared these feelings with him. "Maybe he saw in you a chance to hear that God truly loves him and there's hope for him yet. Maybe that's all he needed to help him today. What you did and said today is more valuable and will last longer than $5 ever would."
I suppose. I did let a few family members of his know that I had seen him, and the condition I had found him in. They too had lost touch or track of him. They thanked me for letting them know. I hope he finds himself at their Thanksgiving table this year.
I often think about him since that day. He's someone's father - that I know. He's someone's brother. In fact, he's my brother - in Christ. Every person out there, on a park bench, in a soup kitchen, in a shelter was once sitting at a family dinner, in a church or in a friend's home at some point in their life.
These people are real people, I think I forget that sometimes. It humbles me. It makes me so thankful for the condition of my life today, despite any difficulties or problems I may face, I know there are those who are so worse of than I am. And I am filled with an ache in my heart. A tiny voice in my mind that asks: are we doing enough? I realize that those things that we think are so small an insignificant, really mean so much to people who have so little.
Have you done one thing this holiday season, regardless of how small it may seem to you, for someone in need? Do you plan to?
God Bless you and yours this holiday weekend. More importantly, God please bless those who are without.
Matthew 25:34-40: Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’