Back in October, I was driving home on a Sunday night after youth group at about 10 pm. I had turned onto my street and was planning on going straight when I decided at the last second to turn into the QT across the street for a snack. This is something I do about three or four times a week, so I didn’t think anything of it. Little did I know I was in for one of the most eye opening experiences of my life.
I pull into the QT and find a parking spot on the right side of the building. I put my car in park and look up to see a couple standing right in front of my spot asking people for money as they walked by. As bad as this will sound, this was my first thought: “Oh great, this is going to be awkward. I should’ve parked on the other side of the building.” I got out of my car mentally preparing how I was going to reject these people. Maybe they’d just let me go and I won’t have to deal with this uncomfortable situation. Alas, that was not the case. I’m heading toward the entrance when the man approaches me and asks if I have a few extra dollars to spare for gas. I said, “No, I’m sorry sir, I don’t have any cash on me.” That was technically true. I didn’t have any money in my wallet. He said thank you anyway, have a great night. I think I’m in the clear as I’m about to open the door. But then it felt like I got slapped across the face and heard a voice saying “What are you doing? Help these people!”
So I stopped and told them I’d run inside and get some money out of the ATM and be right back. I brought them out $20 and expected to be on my way. They were so incredibly thankful and grateful and told me that now they’d be able to get enough gas to get home. They then motioned to a car sitting at one of the pumps. The thought crossed my mind: how long have they been out here? For all I knew they could’ve been asking people for hours, just trying to get enough money to put even a little gas in the tank.
What I expected to be a quick exchange of money and thank you’s turned into a thirty minute conversation. And I have to say, it was one of the best conversations I’ve ever had with anyone. I learned the name of this couple: Brian and Jamie. Two names I will never forget. I also learned that Brian, 30, and Jamie, 26, weren’t all that much older than I am (they also couldn’t believe I was only 24).
Brian and Jamie were so genuinely grateful and kind. As I mentioned earlier, they told me that they’d now be able to get enough gas to make it home. That made me feel guilty about my initial reaction to say no to them. As we talked they began asking me questions about myself; where I’m from, where I work, what I do. When I told them I worked at Lindenwood and basically got paid to watch sports they thought it was the coolest job in the world. That really put things into perspective for me. I’ve spent my fair share of time complaining about work and how exhausting it can be. My conversation with them is a reminder to be thankful for what I have, especially when it comes to having a good, reliable job.
Our conversation turned to sports, including the Blues, the Cardinals, and the Rams team that won the Super Bowl. We shared memories of some of our favorite sports moments. I just want to take a quick second to say how amazing sports are. They are truly unifying, connecting people from across many different backgrounds. It was incredible just how natural my conversation felt with Brian and Jamie. Nothing about it felt forced or fake. When I first saw them standing in front of my car I viewed them as a nuisance and an obstacle for me to bypass to get to my snacks. Now I was beginning to understand that they were human beings. They were people just like me, people deserving of love. I let my privilege and place in life swell my ego and look down on these people. But after talking with them I learned that everyone has a story. And I got a little insight into theirs.
Jamie had been living with her grandma. The problem was that her grandma didn’t want Brian living with them. Brian and Jamie said that they couldn’t live without each other, so they decided to go out and try to make it on their I own. I also learned a little more about Brian’s background and upbringing. He grew up without a dad. His dad left him and his mom when he was born. And growing up his mom let him do whatever he wanted. He told me that as a kid that was the best thing ever. His mom didn’t punish him or tell him not to do certain things. She didn’t care if he got in trouble in school. He could do whatever he wanted. It’s only now, years removed, that he sees how harmful and damaging that was. He didn’t have anyone to hold him accountable. There was no one to help him learn from mistakes or push him to be a better person. In essence, he didn’t have anyone that cared or loved him enough to guide him through adolescence. That lack of discipline led him down a bad path filled with mistakes and poor decisions. And he was the one that told me he made poor decisions. He was fully aware of the fact that he had made plenty of mistakes. But how could he have ever known better growing up? No one was there for him and now he’s paying the price.
We were getting close to the end of our conversation and I asked them one last time if there was anything more I could do. I told them I lived really close, so I could grab some food or clothes. What Jamie asked me broke my heart.
Do you have a shower I could use?
That stopped me in my tracks. That’s not something I was even remotely prepared for. A shower is something I have access to every single day, something I take for granted. I couldn’t comprehend that there are people who don’t have that luxury. Before I could respond Brian cut in and said that I had done enough for them. They thanked me again for everything, and we went our separate ways. In hindsight I wish I would’ve said yes. Sure, it may have been awkward and weird to bring a couple strangers I’ve known all of thirty minutes to my apartment to use my shower. But why should awkwardness be a deterrent to helping people in need? If awkward situations kept people from helping others we probably wouldn’t have very many saints.
My entire encounter with Brian and Jamie really opened my eyes. So often we look at the homeless and, right or wrong (definitely wrong), jump to conclusions about how they got there. They must be a drug addict. They’re too lazy to get a job. They weren’t smart with their money. We assume they’re an accumulation of their mistakes. What we don’t understand is that every single homeless and poor person has a story of how they got there that is so complex. Sure, they may have made mistakes along the way. But who hasn’t made mistakes? I’ve made plenty in my lifetime. But the difference is that I have a loving family, amazing friends, and an incredible support group. They’re always there to lift me up when I’m down, or set me straight when I veer off the path. I don’t want to generalize, but a lot of those people don’t have that same luxury. They make a mistake and don’t have the resources or support system necessary to get back on track. Instead, they make a mistake and society casts a shadow on them. They become invisible. They have to resort to standing on the street or in front of a gas station just to get enough food or money to survive.
Reflecting on my previous encounters with homeless people, I’m embarrassed. I can’t count how many people I’ve passed them on the street, asking for any little bit of help. How many times have I walked past those people, averted eye contact, and pretended like I do see them there? And why? It’s because I don’t want to feel uncomfortable. I don’t want to acknowledge that there are in fact people living on the streets. People starving. People freezing. People who don’t have a consistent place to sleep. We don’t want to feel guilty about all of the nice things we have. So what’s the best thing to do? Ignore them. Out of sight, out of mind, right? After my encounter with Brian and Jamie, I just can’t take that approach anymore. These are people, brothers and sisters in Christ, that are suffering. And right across the street from me. Not countries or states away, or even just downtown St. Louis. Right across the street. I can’t claim that I’ve since gone up to each and every homeless person on the street and struck up a conversation. But now when I drive by them I don’t look at them as a nobody or a nuisance. Now I see them for what they really are: a human being.
I highly recommend watching the video below of Chris Long and William Hayes going undercover as homeless people. It’s incredible to see people doing such amazing things about this issue and not just writing a blog about it.