Danny

I love camping. I love the idea of escaping for a few days into the wild and feeling like I’m ‘living off the land.’ I like bringing along a cell phone, change of clothes, comfortable tent, sleeping bag, lantern and a camera. I’d like to think I’m pretty low maintenance and maybe I am, but even so, I realize lately I’m so caught up in the world, sometimes I trip over my own feet.

Danny has lived in a ‘camp’ outside of town for almost a year now. I’ve never been to any of them, but I have friends that have. I know at least one of those friends carries a gun… just in case. Not exactly the kind of ‘camp’ I remember from Girl Scouts.

Danny spent the first 50+ years of his life taking care of his mother. She was a kind woman and his all-time hero. He loved her as much or more than any son I’ve seen love his mother. Telling me about her brought tears to his eyes. As the tears were streaming from this rough old bearded man, I felt tears swell up in my own eyes.

I know it sounds silly, but there’s something about a grown man crying that cuts to the very core of me. I’m old school. Men are tough and strong and nothing should touch them.

She died almost a year ago and the loss was too great for him. She was the last living relative he knew, so he left his hometown to escape his pain. He landed in Little Rock with few skills and too old to learn or use the few he may have had. He fell in with a crowd in one of these camps, and now calls it home.

When the snow came, many of these people didn’t know of much or trust much beyond their camps. They came hesitantly back into a broken world that they learned was full of pain and structure they cannot understand and find impossible to live in. Something I think a lot of people don’t understand is that it isn’t a CHOICE. To live in our world is an everyday extraordinary struggle beyond our comprehension to some.

Danny was only in the warming center one night. I wonder where he went later. Stories like his are throughout shelters. A family member dies and life loses its luster. These big-hearted, strong people can no longer function in the world you and I know. Some have dealt with their crises by self medicating with the bottle or drugs. Some have inner will, and learn to survive the best they can in a world that has forgotten them.

How do we, as Christians and fellow humans, find a way for them to remember happiness and joy? How do we dry Danny’s tears? How do we welcome him and his friends without overwhelming them?

McKinley

“What would you do, if Jesus came to your house?” McKinley, a tall, smiling, red-eyed black man, asked while reciting a poem he wrote.

“Would you introduce him to all your closest friends, or would you hope they’d stay away?”

His poem, in perfect rhymes (which I’m horribly reciting, because perfect rhymes are not in my writing repertoire) ended and he told me how gracious God had been in his life and what a great life God had given him.

Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect from his story. If God had given him a great life, then surely his story wouldn’t be that bad, right?

McKinley was the first person to open up and tell me where he came from. This was my first night at the church, and I wasn’t sure how to ask someone how they became homeless. I mean, he had to be homeless because he was here, but yet, he was praising God and thanking Him for his blessed life. I decided the most straight-forward question would be best.

“How did you end up living on the streets?” I asked, half expecting him to say he didn’t live on the streets, but just couldn’t afford heat this month.

His response messed me up.

“Well, my wife died about four years ago. When she died, nothing in my life was good anymore. I couldn’t find joy in anything. I mean, I’m a good person, but you know, when you meet that one person that fits you, it just… fits. When it’s gone, there ain’t no gettin’ that back,” he said.

He went on to tell me they had a business together. Piecing together the rest of his very scattered story-telling, I assume he was a truck driver. I don’t know how she died, or the circumstances surrounding him becoming homeless, but you can tell in his voice what once was well put together, working, loving husband, has been withdrawn and turned into someone else. Someone who doesn’t know how to make it anymore. Someone who lives life in the shadows, trying to make sense of his nonsensical life.

This man had somehow found, that despite his confusion, his loss, his living on the streets and not knowing what was around the next corner (a gun? somewhere to sleep? a friend? an enemy?), that God was still good and faithful.

How many of us that live in our cookie cutter houses on our cookie cutter streets and complain when our cable flickers or our dinner gets cold, can’t seem to figure out that God is good and faithful?

How many of us that live in what McKinley might call luxury with jobs and money and friends and family, can’t admit that God has been good and faithful to us?

How many of us climb into bed next to our spouse or significant other and resent them or go to bed angry because they left a light on, can’t seem to thank God for putting them in our life?

This man knows more about God’s Love, even in his lost life, than most of us do, in our over-filled cups of life.

UPDATE: Prior to this being published, I heard from a girl from my church, who also posted a little something about McKinley, that enough money had been raised to renew his CDL and (hopefully) get him working again! This is amazing news, and I hope McKinley can get some of his life back soon!

Red

Leading 70 homeless men and women through the lunch line isn’t easy, especially for a man who is homeless himself, but Red, aptly named with pale skin, tons of freckles and bright, curly red hair sticking out under his ball cap, rounds up the herd and leads them through the line, keeping them honest, yet sincere in making sure everyone has a plate and every plate is filled.

I asked Red where he stayed. Usually when I ask that, I’m given a street name, a railroad track number, or they say, “up in a camp somewhere,” not wanting to give away their site. Red’s answer? Well, one time he said, “oh, down southwest.” Next time, “oh, up northeast.”

“How long have you been in Little Rock?” I asked.
He looked down, as if trying to find the answer.
“Oh, a little while,” he answered, starting to look around and shift his stance.

I stopped my line of questioning and went back to building up cots and watching everyone climb into their makeshift beds and try to sleep in the crowded room.

“He did NOT want to answer your questions, did he?” my friend, Crystal, said later. No he didn’t. But why? Neither of us could figure it out.

Two days later I  learned a story that would break my already wounded heart.

Not so long ago, Red was hit by a car and sent to the ER. He had no identification and ended up in a coma for a while. When he came out of it, he didn’t know his name, where he was from, where he was headed or anything else about his life.

He’s too scared to try to find out details, scared he might not like who he was, since now, despite being homeless, has a heart of gold and gives to others like he’s got the world at his fingertips.

Does he have a family? Does someone miss him? Is someone looking for him?

How does one go about making a difference in their corner of the world, when they aren’t sure which corner of the world is theirs to make a difference in? How do we deal with a world made for us to fit into some box, when no box fits us? Does a person’s past define his story? Or is the true story that person’s present and how he uses his today to better tomorrow?

Some days I feel like I have more questions than answers, but I’d rather ask a billion questions, than sit idly by and watch the answers disappear, like the memories of my friend, Red.

Andre

“Did you know we had a guy on parole for murder here?” -text message to me

“Yeah, you mean Andre. He’s cool. It was his cousin and a while ago… I think.” -my reply

He caught my eye and threw me that toothy smile that has been glued on his face for the last two days. I had just finished three interviews, and was hoping he’d start talking without a lead. Thank God for small miracles.

“I like gettin’ out and makin’ my own way instead of askin’ from people,” Andre said, still smiling. “I’m a real nice person. If I see someone who needs my help, I’ll take them under my wing and take care of them.”

He said he met his fiancée online and was sick of the games and dishonesty the girls he knew were throwing at him. She stood by his side, despite his parole violation, and possible murder (which we are all still a little fuzzy about).

“I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. I was around people I wasn’t supposed to be around,” he said.

I believe him. I also believe he killed a man. And I believe none of that changes my view of him or gave me any hesitation in hugging him and loving him and listening to him.

“I lost control.”

Who hasn’t been there? Maybe you didn’t reach in the glove compartment, grab the gun and shoot someone, but in my favorite Book, it says if you are angry at someone and call them foolish, you are guilty of murder and worthy of Hell. It says not to even pray or give thanks until you have reconciled that anger.

How could I possibly judge this man? In God’s eyes, I’ve done the SAME THING.

He went on to tell me about his fiancée, Sandy. He said he loved her because of her kindness, the very thing that has spiraled them into living under the Broadway bridge. You see, Sandy doesn’t understand money. She gets a paycheck, and gives every dime away before she goes to bed that night. She doesn’t mean to. She wants to save. She just can’t say no.

This mind sound simple-minded or (choose your own negative adjective to insert here), but to her, she just doesn’t understand. She can’t say no, and no one has taught her the simple life skills required to save money.

Gosh, I wish Bill Gates had that problem! These two have ‘adopted’ a young man named James who isn’t much younger than them. They saw him being taken advantage of, and took him in and protected him.

I don’t care what this man did in another life; in this one, he’s my hero.

Thank You God, for being a forgiving God, for being a redeeming God, for being faithful and loving and granting serenity, even in our darkest hour. Thank you for your children. Every last one of them, Lord. Continue teaching me through them, and use me for whatever Your will may be. Amen.

Names

So, if you’ve kept up, you know stories are the name of the game. The thing is, to give each name a blog? It would take forever.

The biggest problem with continuing the stories isn’t one I’d like to admit, but it’s the truth: I’m scared. I’m hurt. I’m heartbroken. I’m vulnerable and exposed in a way I don’t like.

Since I actually typed out those words, I’ll probably continue writing their stories, in one form or another. It isn’t just about one person and his or her struggle, it’s about giving him a NAME; giving her a FACE. It’s about doing everything, within my power (although I hate that caveat), to make sure these folks know I love them, just as they are.

I could spend hours and countless pages talking about Mary, the social worker who used to work with the homeless and now lives among them.

There’s man named Red (no, another one). He’s lived on the streets for about 50 years. Who knows where he came from or why, or what his birth name is? He has red hair, so like our other Red, he’s known as Red. He’s in the hospital now, so I’m sure he’d appreciate your prayers.

There’s Eric, JC, Nancy, Gaskell, Donny, Sandy, James, Rose, Steve, Bear, Briana, Olivia, Angel, Rodney, Byron and tons of others whose names I’ve forgotten.

I try so hard to remember names. Most people don’t even acknowledge these wonderful people exist. The LEAST I can do is remember their names.

The next time you’re at the street corner and you’re thinking, “I bet this beggar just wants money for his next fix, drink, cigarette [or whatever,]” I want you to add one more thought, “I should love him anyway… even if he really IS going to spend it on crack… I should love him anyway… if that doesn’t ever change… I should love him anyway. If every stereotype is true… I should love him anyway. He has a name.”

Spring Cleaning

It’s springtime. The air is clean. The sun is out. It’s 80 degrees outside. Today is perfect. I know many of you might have New Year’s Resolutions you’ve already broken, or maybe you haven’t, in which case, good on you, but just so you know: you are a minority. 😉

It’s also Lent. I’ve asked a few different people their views on Lent. To me, it’s a time of cleansing. A time to rid ourselves of the negative things that keep us away from God and pull in those positive things that keep us close to God. I had grand plans for Lent. I was going to keep out some unhealthy people and habits and pull in healthy people and habits.

It turns out, God had different plans.

God doesn’t have us push out unhealthy things. He has us push through them. This Spring Cleaning is a time to recognize that the only person responsible for making me happy, is me. I’ve been putting a lot of responsibility on others: my mom, my friends, etc. to make me happy. If their opinions of me dropped, so did mine of myself.

I have done some soul-searching and realize in many ways, I’ve spent a good part of my life setting myself up for failure, then falling apart when it failed. I’m cleaning that crap up, too.

I have become addicted to reassurance from others. Not to say people don’t need a support system and friends and family to believe in them, but it’s just as important to believe in yourself. I haven’t been.

I learned earlier this year putting all your stock in others means falling apart when those ‘others’ disappear. It was like I built my house on sand. When they stopped believing in me, loving me and being present in my life, my world crumbled. I hadn’t built a good foundation to begin with. I tried blaming them, but the blame falls squarely on my own shoulders.

I can no longer allow people in my life that need: to be my foundation, me to be their foundation, me to make them feel better about them, their life, family, self-esteem, etc.

If you want to be in my life, you are going to have to grab some cement and start mixing, helping me build my house on something solid: me. And Jesus. 😉

So, I write.

I’m a writer, but I have no idea what that means in today’s world. It seems everyone is a writer of some sort. I don’t have earth shattering views or an extraordinary life to fill my pages. Each chapter of my life seems short, and without the grace of the many charm classes I went through as a child. My memories fade quickly and my heart breaks and heals with the tides.

One thing binds them together. I write. Since my mom taught me how to spell out my name, anytime I let anger stew, anytime my heart is so big it could burst, anytime the world is in perfect unison with my soul, anytime my very human, raw emotions come under attack, anytime I look up and see God, I WRITE.

However, as always, there is another side of the coin. If I say, “I love you.” then someone reads it and I love the wrong person and if I say, “I hate you.” then someone reads it and obviously, I’m the devil with no soul. Writers offend no matter WHAT they say. And they offend often.

To be offended by another’s words is run-of-the-mill these days. We’ve been taught that everything anyone has written is about you personally. It’s a passive aggressive (overused phrase of the YEAR) means to erase the face from the other side of the computer and anything written is obviously meant to offend you.

Maybe those voices are right.

…but maybe, just maybe, people write from their hearts, and in perfect human nature, write for themselves, and not for you.

I know, for me, when I have a good day with my family, and I look around and see their smiling faces, my heart soars, and I want to write.

When I see a grown man cry because he has no home or family and it’s 12 degrees outside and he has nowhere to sleep, my heart breaks, and I want to write.

When I get a glimpse of what love songs truly mean in the real world, my heart melts, and I want to write.

To be me is to constantly ache for a keyboard. If me laying my heart out for the world to see offends you, it speaks to your heart, not mine.

And regardless, I love you anyway. Take THAT personally. Because I mean it.