The morning of 9/29/16, 9 AM
I came to the church this morning with a plan. I showed up at 9:00, and had a Skype meeting at 9:30. I went into my office to grab my Bible, and planned to go to the prayer room of our church for the 30 minutes before my meeting. As I walked into the office, I looked outside the window, and as usual, a homeless person was sleeping in our alleyway. There is almost always one or more homeless people in this alleyway at any given moment. It has an overhang, and is surrounded by fences or walls, so it is pretty well shut off from everything around it. In addition, there is an outlet in this alley, so people can charge their cell phones.
The compassionate side of me wants to let them stay. After all, it is about as safe a place as they are going to find. On the other hand, whenever people are in this alleyway, we end up with loads of garbage in the alley. There are two gated areas which are often used as restrooms by some folks. A lock on these gates is ineffective. These gated areas have also become storage areas for some folks. We find these areas filled with items, from bikes, to mattresses, to boxes full of knickknacks. Most disturbingly, we have found used needles in this alleyway. Not only is this unnerving, but it's terrifying when you consider that small children and families walk through this alley on a regular basis.
Still, my heart hurts for these folks, and I'd like them to have a safe space. Compassion and the need for safety often battle inside of me as I consider the homeless who use this alley. I have noticed lately that I often address the homeless folks outside of our building in one of two extreme fashions: either I will respond with kindness and compassion, or I will respond in a terse fashion ("You need to get all of this stuff out of here now").
This brings me to this morning. A young man is sleeping in the alley. There are blankets and a mattress that have been thrown away four times this week already and keep reappearing in the alley. There is garbage surrounding the young man. I have 30 minutes until my first meeting, and another meeting across town that follows this first meeting. If I ignore this man and allow him to sleep, this alley will remain full of garbage, blankets, the mattress, and again, possibly needles.
If I'm lying, I'd like to say that my concern for the children who walk through this alley is what resulted in my response. If I'm being truthful, I was annoyed that I had to deal with this on an already full work day.
I walked outside, woke the roughly 20 year old guy up, and told him to get the stuff out of the alley. Bleary-eyed, he responded, "Oh, yeah, I mean, I'll make sure it's out."
"No, seriously, get it out. Throw it away or take it with you, I don't care. Just make sure it's gone."
"Yeah. I'll do that."
There's a long pause as I walk back to the building. I'm out of view of the young man at this point, but I can totally hear him say "Hey, do you know what time it is?" I pretend not to hear him and go inside the building. I don't have much time. I have to pray before the day begins. My morning devotional and prayer time is incredibly important.
I take my Bible up to the prayer room, turn on a lamp, and sit quietly in a chair. For about three minutes, I can't think of anything else but this young man. I have neither the ability or the desire to pray for anything at all. I just keep thinking of this young man in the alley. Not compassionately, though. It's more annoyance at the interruption he has caused me.
After a few minutes, after I have centered myself and can focus on the Almighty, I think to myself, "God, speak to me this morning."
There are not many moments in which I sense immediate answers to my prayers, but in this case, my lack of compassion and Christ-like love for this young man became apparent. I could not pray in the traditional sense, knowing that I had lambasted a young man for the crime of trying to sleep.
I poured two cups of coffee and brought them outside. I offered him one, and apologized for my terseness five minutes prior. He told me that his name was Tony, and that he had recently lost his job. As we continued to talk for the next half hour, he told me about how he has had a hard time holding on to a job, and the difficulties he's had since leaving his mother's home. We discussed his love of disc golf, and drank our coffee.
He asked when our church meets, and I asked him if he believed in God. He said that he hadn't been to church in many years, but he believed that there was a God.
It was a simple conversation, but an important one. It was a reminder for me that behind the mattress, and the blankets, and the garbage, and sometimes the needles, there is a person. Each week at church, I commune with dozens of people at the table, remembering the body and blood of our Lord and Savior. As I drink the shot glass of Welch's grape juice, I remember the ways in which Jesus has pulled together people of all backgrounds and all nationalities at the table.
Here, in the alley, among the garbage and cigarette butts, I drank the brown, caffeinated blood of Christ, and remembered that in Christ, I am one with this young man.