I walked by her every morning on my way to work. She sat on the bench at 6th and Brazos, huddled under blankets, with her curly blond hair peeking out from underneath her hooded sweatshirt.
One afternoon, she was there as I left work and we caught each other’s gaze as I walked in her direction.
“I like your shirt,” she said, smiling.
“Thanks,” I said. And as I was about to keep walking the Spirit stopped me and I turned and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Crystal,” she said.
“I’m Lindsay,” I responded. “What are you reading?”
Typically when I passed her in the mornings I, Crystal was intently devouring her next mystery novel. She read a new one every day. The next day I brought her a bag of food and a few books to read because it was all I could think to do to soften the blow, to alleviate some pain.
On one particularly cold morning, I stopped to say hi and asked her why she wasn’t wearing the big, puffy coat lying next to her on the bench.
“They won’t let us,” Crystal said with sadness in her voice. “A big coat makes it hard for them to see us.”
“Can you move to sit somewhere in the sun?” I asked, motioning to the concrete stands surrounding the trees all down the street.
She shook her head, saying she would be arrested if she sat there. I gave her a smile and said I would be looking out for her. My temptation was to fix it, but I had no answers. After a few minutes, I walked away feeling overwhelmed, frustrated and hopeless. Looking back, not having answers was God’s grace to me – Crystal is a complex person, not a project to be “fixed.”
The next day, Crystal met me as I was about to cross the street. It was cold again, and this time she had on her big jacket, while I was wearing a thinner one (a poor choice on my part that morning). She gave me a hug, and teased me about where my jacket was. We laughed, and then said goodbye as I went up to my office, and she stopped to talk to a friend.
The next few weeks I would see Crystal reading and talking with friends on that corner each morning. I would wave and say hi. And then, I didn’t see her anymore. It’s been a few months since she’s been at her usual spot, and not a day goes by when I don’t pass that bench and think of her: wondering where she is, hoping I get a chance to know her and her story better.
I had been asking God to give me opportunities to love the homeless. It was a prayer God had answered multiple times that week, but I’d given in to fear and let the chances go by. And then God, in his grace, introduced me to Issachar.
I was walking to my parking garage when he asked if I could spare some change. He was a young black man in his 20s, with braided hair and a soft- spoken voice, wearing a small backpack and a genuine smile. I stopped, and said I did.
While I was digging through my purse trying to find the bag of dollar coins I knew was buried at the bottom, he asked me about my sandals and I asked him his name.
“Issachar,” he replied. “It means giver of rewards.”
I handed him the dollar coins, and asked where he was from.
“Memphis. I’ve been here a few months. I came here to be a musician,” he replied. “I’ve never been homeless before I moved here. My family is so upset that I won’t come home, but I keep telling them I have to figure this out on my own.”
He tells me how he’s currently staying at a motel, and is trying to find a more permanent living situation to get off the streets. He has a call in the morning about a job. And then he asks if I would like a song in exchange for the coins.
I confess I almost said no. I almost said no out of fear – what will people think of me? What will people think of him? But again, in God’s grace, the yes came out of my mouth and I am so thankful. For the next 30 seconds, I listen, tears in my eyes, as Issachar belts out part of a song he’s written. He doesn’t hold back, and fearlessly bears his heart and soul for all passerby to see and hear. He gives me the most valuable gift – a piece of his story, of himself. And not to mention, his voice was incredible.
I walk away broken, humbled and hopeful, reminded that when light shines in the darkness, the darkness can not overcome it. Giver of rewards, indeed.
On a Friday afternoon, I was heading out to lunch with co-workers and his sign said that he was thirsty. He was fighting for a smile as I walked over.
I placed the rest of my dollar coins in the rough palm of his hand and said, “These are dollar coins so you can buy yourself something to drink and eat.”
As I looked in his sunburned face, his pale blue eyes welled up with tears. I asked his name.
“Patrick,” he said, as his face gave away the depth of his need.
“Thank you so much,” he said. “Can I give you a hug?”
“Of course,” I said and leaned in to hug him. Because, of course.
Later that night, I cried. I cried because the reality that life is so so hard for so many people right here in my city hit me full on. I cried because I live in a world where a gift of a few dollars is enough to bring a man to tears. The need – for provision and to feel loved and valued – is that deep and desperate.
I tell you these stories – not to receive your approval or disapproval – but because stories are so often how God teaches me, and this is the best way I know how to share what I’m learning with you. Hearing people’s stories is how I most clearly see God and learn his character. And lately, God’s been teaching me through his Word, the wise words of others, and the stories of Crystal, Issachar and Patrick what he means when he says “as you did it to the least of my brothers, you did it to me.” He’s been teaching me what he means in Isaiah 58 when he says:
Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds on wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Not to hide yourself from your own flesh. No matter our race, culture, or socio-economic status, we are all human. My personal belief is that we’re all created by God, and so if nothing else, we have that as common ground in my book. We belong to each other. And if we belong to each other, then I can’t hide when one of my own is in need.
We live in South Austin. The working poor live in our neighborhood. There are kids who go to the high school down the street who aren’t sure where they’re sleeping tonight. I work downtown. Seeing people sleeping on park benches and asking for help from street corners is a daily occurrence. How am I constantly making real the love of God to the people around me, especially those on the outskirts of society?
That’s the question that’s been burning in my soul lately. It’s a fire I can’t ignore, and frankly, I don’t want to. God’s producing a deep ache in my heart for those on the outside, those who are abandoned and marginalized. I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t exactly know what it looks like to move forward. Most of the time this feels overwhelming, but I believe God is leading me to learn, to engage, to love. So, one foot in front of the other.
What have you been learning lately? What do you think “making real” the love of God looks like?