Last week, on the Pearl Street walking mall in Boulder, Colorado, I sat on a bench enjoying my turkey and provolone Panini. It was a warm day, perfect for people watching. I began to study the movements of that city’s many homeless people.
It is pretty easy to miss seeing homeless people. We can look straight through them as if they were cellophane. I stopped short of that instinct, long enough to spot a few common features. Most of these folks had gasping hygiene issues. Their mumbling or aggressive speech – it differed according to the person – seemed to capture little attention from passersby. Those who held cups tended to have physical deformities.
Life on the street is unarguably precarious. Death is forever pounding at the door, never more than a few days away were a thug to show up, or serious illness to set in. The physical and psychological wellbeing of homeless individuals intertwine in such a jumbled way that the fate of one is linked to the plight of the other. A sense of self worth is virtually non-existent. Shoring up one’s identity through self-respect ended long ago.
Back in Iowa a few days later, I listened to a friend describe a recent experience in downtown Chicago. He was there with his three grade school-aged daughters. Something inspired him to buy a couple dozen Dunkin Donuts and 15 cups of coffee. The two older girls balanced five cups each in their cardboard carriers. Alex carried the rest. Oh yes, the six-year-old had the napkins.
Off they went in search of homeless men and women on Michigan Avenue. It was a smiling expedition. The goal was not just to offer food and drink, but also to share some actual conversation and honest eye contact. They were going to need more than clinical or class-conscious eyes; they would need eyes of faith.
With no shortage of street people on Michigan Avenue, this quartet got to work passing out donuts. They began visiting with, and recognizing the image of God in, people who didn’t bear any particular resemblance to their own image. That’s no small dent in a world of alienation and indifference. The best part, though, was the distribution of napkins from the youngest one. She was the caboose who closed every deal.
What homeless person needs a napkin when eating a donut, you ask? Well, every one of them does, at least if you want to communicate respect. I’m pretty sure that your average Joe, who hasn’t known a bed in years, is so used to being ignored that he doesn’t even crave respect any longer. But he knows what respect is. Every recipient of a donut and coffee also received a napkin. That’s when each one gave a hearty, “Thank you.”
If you find yourself undertaking an expedition of feeding a few street people one of these days, don’t worry about changing the world. Your effort won’t. Instead, believe that you might change one day, or even a small part of one day, for some lonely soul. Just don’t forget the napkins. You’ll want them to show respect to people who aren’t always sure they’re precious to anyone.
Peter W. Marty, senior pastor