South

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She was sitting on the shoulder of an I-70 west on-ramp, holding a sign that read, “SOUTH.” She was wearing plastic sunglasses and a hoodie, and to her left was a collection of 11 or 12 suitcases and duffle bags. As Launa and I passed by her, we talked for a moment about going back to let the woman know she was sitting in the wrong spot to go south, and we marveled about all of her bags, and we wondered who might’ve dropped her there and why.

An hour later, Launa texted me: “I can’t stop thinking about that woman on the side of the road.”

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A Man Standing Naked in the Middle of the Street

Note: A friend of a friend of a friend wrote this post on Facebook and it made its way to me. I reached out to the author, Dr. Timothy Huffman, and he graciously agreed to allow me to share it as a guest post here. Just so there’s no confusion: This is neither my experience nor my words; they’re Dr. Huffman’s. And they wrecked me in all the best ways.

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It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m driving on Thurman Ave, on my way home from FedEx making copies. As I drive north, the traffic is sorta strange. Cars pulled off at weird angles or creeping very slowly. As I drive on, I see why.

There is a man standing naked in the middle of the street.

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A Jar of Peanut Butter in a Box

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It was cold that night, and we were giving out donated socks and gloves, water bottles and fruit. Dim light from one, tired streetlamp puddled in the deep cracks and potholes around us. We stood silently, watching the door of the dilapidated warehouse across the street; we’d been warned it could contain “trouble.” (Of what sort we were left to imagine.) We were waiting for permission to walk around the building and into the back parking area, where some homeless men were staying.

After several long minutes, our group leader emerged and waved us back. We walked along a dirt path hidden between abandoned trailers, finally ducking under one that served as a gate of sorts. On the other side of the yard, four or five men were huddled around a fire they’d made in a rusty oil drum, holding their hands near the flames.

As I stood there—awkwardly, wondering what to do now that I’d given away what we’d come to give—one gentleman abruptly limped away from the fire, picked up a box, and brought it back to me. He smiled, and as he tilted the box toward me, he said, “Everything I have fits in here.” Although it surely contained more stuff, all I recall seeing is a jar of Skippy peanut butter. I must’ve just stood there, blinking at him and his possessions, because he soon shrugged his shoulders, put the box back on the concrete, and returned to the fire.

Later, as we made our way back to our warm cars that would soon deliver us safely to our comfortable homes, I tried to figure out why he was smiling. “It must be freeing to own so little,” I decided, as my eyes welled up. And then, immediately: “Really, Kelley? The man has no home, it’s 24-degrees outside, and you’re feeling sorry for yourself because you have too much stuff?” My cheeks, already red from the wind, ignited with hot shame.

Every Christmas season seems to trigger this memory. As I find myself standing in ever-longer checkout lines, as I dodge yet another frantic-looking woman at the mall who’s rushed out of a store without looking to see if someone’s walking in front of it, as I circle the Target parking lot again and again and again—I see his smile. I see the shrug of his shoulders. I see him walking away from me, shaking his head as though I’d missed the point.

I’m still embarrassed by my envy, but I’ve clung to the night’s lesson: Consumerism has claws. They sink into our flesh so slowly we don’t even realize we’re in pain… until we attempt to pull away.

It’s 11 days until Christmas, and at no other time is this lesson more difficult to embrace. Every year I declare, “We’re going simple this year, so don’t be expecting much.” And then I head out to pick up “a couple of things,” which turns into “just one more,” which becomes “Oops. I did it again.”

I’m not doing that this year. I’m not. So, if you see me out and about, and if it appears I’ve overdone it, do me a favor: As you walk past, after we’ve done our hi-how-are-you-fine-thanks, look me in the eye and ask:

“Will that fit in the box?”

The Evils of War

She walked in right at noon—the moment the doors opened—and it was clearly her first time at The Bridge, a day shelter for people who are homeless.

“Where do I sit?” she asked.

“Anywhere you’d like,” I responded with a smile.

Moments later, a security guard corrected her/me.

“Hey, those tables aren’t open,” he barked. “You need to sit up here.”

She shrugged and found a seat at the front of the room, near the serving line.

“My bad,” I said.

The guard didn’t care whose bad it was.

“What time is lunch served?” she asked, hope in her eyes.

I delivered the bad news:

“One.”

Her shoulders sank. She was clearly hungry. Hungry, hungry.

Several minutes passed. I made eye contact with her, and she asked for the time.

“12:11,” I responded.

She sank lower in her chair and wrapped her arms around her mid-section.

“Hey, do you want to play cards or something to pass the time?” I asked.

She hesitated, but then said, a bit shyly, “All right. Sure.”

I pulled the cards from my bag.

“Do they have brushes here?” she asked as I sat across from her. “Like to brush your hair?”

(Side note: This was the second hair-related question I’d had that morning. The first was a woman on a desperate search for a pair of scissors so she could cut out her tangles. I could probably round up six brushes at my home. Some people have none.)

“Ummm, I don’t know if they have brushes.”

I paused.

“But your hair is so short! You brush it anyway?”

Her hair wasn’t just short. It was buzzed.

She ran her hand across her head.

“Well, yeah,” she responded (with a hint of “duh”).

A nine-year-old who’d come along to serve sat down between the two of us. We did introductions, and after I was certain another guest at the same table didn’t want to play, we dove into a game of War.

We were having a blast, laughing and complaining about the junk cards being passed around. T–who had seemed so dejected–positively came to life. We’d just had our first actual war (between Kings, which she won) when I felt the security guard behind me.

“You can’t play cards in here,” he growled.

“Excuse me?”

“You can’t play cards in here.”

“But . . . why?” I asked.

The most ridiculous scenarios flashed through my head. Is there some gang association with cards? Is it because we’re playing War? Have they had fights break out over losses?

Nope. Nothing like that.

“Because we’re in a church,” the guard said, his tone condescending.

“But . . . but we’re not playing for money,” I said, my tone bewildered.

“You can’t play cards in here. You’re in a church.”

He walked away. Swaggered a bit, really.

I looked across the table at T–. Her shoulders sank as I collected the cards.

“Well, that’s just stupid,” she muttered.

“Yes. It is,” I responded. “Really stupid. Sorry.”

After lunch, T- approached the table where the chef and I were sitting.

“Thank you so much for lunch. I hadn’t eaten in two days. It was real good. Thank you.”

“Aww, you’re welcome, Boo,” the chef replied. (Everyone is Boo.)

I later learned that the actual reason cards are disallowed in the dining room has to do with a gambling ring they had some time ago. Whatever. I imagine T– would still say, “Well, that’s just stupid.

I’m glad she had a good meal that day; she was clearly hungry. But she was also clearly starving for something more than food. Maybe something like normalcy. Make something like companionship. Maybe something like being seen as a human being, worthy of attention. Worthy of the exquisitely simple pleasure of playing War before lunch.

Aviator

The Bridge

He’s a young, African American—early 20s, I’m guessing. From where I’m standing, I can’t tell if he has dreads or braids under his bright red, Cardinals flat bill. He’s wearing aviator sunglasses, a gray zip-up hoodie over a plaid shirt, low slung jeans revealing blue boxers, and spotless high tops.

I’m at the front of the serving line, dishing up pork roast, cabbage, and potatoes. Emily’s next to me, adding watermelon and bread. T–, a Bridge guest, is helping behind the line tonight, capping off the trays with thick slices of donated pies and cakes.

Aviator is not happy with T–. Apparently, there’s some disagreement about whether he’s already been through the line once. Or maybe he’s angry on behalf of the woman in front of him, Miss S–, who seems to be hoping for seconds. I feel for T–, who’s just following the rules: No seconds until/unless the chef gives the okay.

It’s not going well down at the end of the line.

I’m trying not to eavesdrop. It’s none of my business. Except Emily is right there, so I’m listening for any indication that she needs to step away.

Aviator gives up and walks off. Miss S–, a sweet, 70-something with thin, gray dreadlocks and a deep compassion for the birds outside her apartment building, tells me that if her arthritis weren’t acting up, she’d give him a knuckle sandwich. I’m not sure to which “him” she’s referring, but I laugh, because it’s clearly what she’s expecting from me.

Aviator’s now pacing back and forth in front of the serving line, offering just barely audible commentary. Emily, who heard more of the original skirmish, assures me that whatever he’s saying, it’s not directed toward us.

“You’re supposed to be helping people. This is bullshit.”

“All you have to do is look me in the eye. I’m a person, too.”

And then, “Half of y’all are racist anyway.”

“Oh,” Emily says. “Maybe he is mad at us.”

I’m mortified. Racist? Did that guy just call me racist?

I start to walk toward him. To assure him I’m not racist. To ask him why he would say such a thing. To find out what I can do to prove that I’m a good person. But he is really agitated, and Emily pulls me back. “No, mom. Not a good idea.”

At the end of our shift, I’m surprised to see Aviator sweeping the dining room—because I’ve already decided he’s a jerk, and this is not jerkish behavior. “Where’d the dustpan go?” he yells across the dining room, and I hand him the one I had been using. I don’t know what I’m expecting. Maybe, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve obviously misjudged you. You are clearly not racist.” He says nothing.

And then it hits me: People have made all sorts of assumptions about me over the years—but not one of those assumptions has been based on the color of my skin. Aviator, though? My guess is he encounters this kind of thing daily. Daily. 

I’ve written before that we don’t love one another because we don’t know one another. This morning, it occurred to me that maybe we dislike one another because we think we do know one another—based on skin color and attire and taste in music and all sorts of ridiculous qualifiers that have absolutely nothing to do with what makes a human being worthy of love. We jump to conclusions. We don’t offer the benefit of the doubt. We see issues instead of people. I wonder if thinking we know people is actually more dangerous than not knowing them at all.

The next day, I’m back at The Bridge, hoping for a shot at redemption. Aviator’s there, too. He approaches the table where I’m counting guests as they come through the line. I tense up. I hate that I do, but I do.

“Hey, can I have a napkin, please? Or a paper towel or something?”

Here’s my chance! Racial reconciliation via paper products! (Yes, I know I’m ridiculous. Remember: It’s part of my charm.) And I cannot find a napkin. (It doesn’t occur to me that I have hundreds of napkins sitting right in front of me, wrapped around plastic sporks.) AGH! This is my moment! Seriously?! Where are the freaking napkins?

I give up. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know where they went.”

“Ah, no worries,” he says. “You’re good,” he says.

I don’t know about that, Aviator. But I’m trying.

I’m trying.

Shoes and Other Stuff

Shoes

Three weeks ago, a pile of shoes in front of my dresser caught my attention: three pair of Converse, one Asics, one Mudd, and a Skechers. I snapped a picture, knowing that at some point I’d feel compelled to confess to you my leanings toward materialism.

Oh, goodie—today is that day.

See, today is the first day of the season of Lent—the 40 days leading up to Easter (minus Sundays, which would require a tangential explanation from which I’ll refrain). If you don’t identify as Christian, this likely means absolutely nothing to you. Take heart: The same is true of a significant percentage of churchy folks—including me, until fairly recently.

During Lent, Christians are encouraged to give up something—in solidarity with Jesus’ suffering and as a way of being more mindful of Him as we prepare to celebrate Easter. We’re supposed to deny ourselves in the same way Jesus denied Himself.  Alternatively, one could take on something, rather than give up something: reading Scripture, for example, or doing random acts of kindness. In short, we should remove something that distracts us from our relationship with Jesus and our desire to live more like He did, or we should add something to deepen the relationship and support living differently.

Confession: My Lenten resolutions typically have nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with kick-starting a diet plan. Down with M&Ms and Diet Coke and up with water, trips to the gym, and raw food. I’ve failed miserably every year—at both the diet plan and the Jesus bit.

This morning, I woke up thinking about my pile of shoes. And then I started thinking about how pissed off I am about homelessness. And then I started thinking about how Jesus would have something to say about how I’m supposedly pissed off about homelessness, yet I have a finished, 1500-square-foot basement that’s unoccupied most of the time—except for the four hours each month when I host a group at my house to talk about homelessness. And then I started thinking about Lent.

And then I started feeling nauseous, because it’s perfectly clear what my Lent thing needs to be: Until Easter, I’m not going to buy “anything.” I’ll get to the air-quotes in a second, but let me first explain why this makes sense.

I spend several hours each month at The Bridge, a place in the city that cares for folks without homes. I also spend some time with Bridge Bread, a social entrepreneurship program that employees homeless people, and Home First, a grassroots organization that’s ending homelessness through—get this—housing people. I have ridiculous dreams about developing tiny home communities and creating mobile laundromats and turning buses into showers on wheels. Aside from passion, you know what those sorts of endeavors require? Time and money.

Well, I spend a lot of time and money buying stuff and taking care of that stuff. Jesus spent His time taking care of people. You see where this is going?

Jack and I have talked about significantly downsizing our home and possessions to release some resources to do what Scripture says: Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly. Living in—and with—less will create space in our heads, wallets, and calendars to do exactly that. The trouble is, we just keep talking about it instead of doing it because we have so much junk cluttering us up. At some point—soon—we’re going to start purging our stuff, right-sizing our possessions for a much smaller living space. But first, I need to stop bringing in new things.

So we’re back to this: Until Easter, for the purpose of denying myself as Jesus instructs and to release resources that will allow me to live differently, I’m not going to spend money on “anything.” The air-quotes are essential due to necessary exceptions:

  • food, but only from a grocery store
  • personal care products (toothpaste, TP, and so on) (This includes mascara. It’s necessary. Trust me.)
  • cleaning products
  • fuel, bills, and sundry unavoidable grownup responsibilities
  • pet care (I’ll bathe them, but I’m not about the anal glands, teeth, and nails.)
  • gifts for other people

When I reached this decision at 6:20 this morning, I immediately had a temper tantrum. You see, I’m preaching in two weeks and I’m teaching at a conference the week after that, and those types of occasions have, in the past, required Outfits. And now it’s too late. I’m going to have to wear something I already own. Horrors.

In addition, I’m going to keep track of what I wanted to buy but didn’t—and the amount of money I saved as a result. I’ll share that total—which is sure to be horrifying—on Easter. Today, I saved $16 by not buying a soda, not eating at BreadCo during our staff meeting, and not giving in to my craving for a latte.

Finally, I may, on occasion, look to you people to help me decide if an exception is truly “necessary.” And that’s why I’m writing this post at all: accountability. Scripture tells us not to be all boastful and woe-is-me-ish when we’re fasting; we’re supposed to do this type of thing in secret. I talked with my boss/pastor about that today, and he agreed that it’s a heart issue. I’m not putting my Lenten resolution out there so you can admire my bravery and sacrifice. I’m putting it out there because I need you to sound an alarm if you see me in line at Target with anything but dog food, toilet paper, milk, and window cleaner. I’ll be equipping you all with tasers in the next week.

So that’s it: That’s how a photo of too many shoes is going to solve homelessness. Through Lent.

(I’d love to hear your give-up or take-on for Lent if you have ’em, and I promise I won’t judge if it’s related to eating habits. For some people that is a significant issue and a good thing to tackle during Lent. It just wasn’t for me.)