In our city, there are a few well-known corners where you’ll often find homeless people standing holding signs. I’ve driven by them hundreds of times, and my reaction has mostly been annoyance.
I did a lot of driving today. As I traveled north past one such corner at 6 o’clock this evening, something a little unusual caught my eye. The words on the man’s sign weren’t your typical “Will work for food” or “God bless you for helping”. This sign had other words, nearly illegible in the dark, but it seemed to say something about “stop” and I thought I saw the word “talk.” The variation made me slightly less annoyed than I normally would be and just a little curious. Yet a few seconds later all was forgotten as I continued on my way to a meeting at church.
At 9 pm, after having driven back down south for Lexi’s jazz band concert, I returned along the same route I had taken earlier. It was dark by now, but surprisingly the man was still there, and this time I got a clear view of his sign. It read, “Stop and talk to me”. What a strange message! I shrugged it off.
I drove on past and headed for home. But now I was wrestling more than driving.
You see, what I didn’t mention was that the whole time I’d been driving around all day I had been listening to the dramatized book of Proverbs over my car stereo. I’d been hearing repeatedly about our obligation to the poor.
Proverbs 14:31 Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
Proverbs 17:5 Whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker; whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished.
Proverbs 19:7 The poor are shunned by all their relatives— how much more do their friends avoid them! Though the poor pursue them with pleading, they are nowhere to be found.
Proverbs 19:17 Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done.
Proverbs 21:13 Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered.
Proverbs 22:9 The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.
I’m heading for home, making every excuse I can so I won’t have to turn around and go back and talk to the homeless man. But my excuses aren’t convincing. In fact, everything else tells me the opposite: I saw him twice, Proverbs has been telling me all day to be gracious to the poor, the man’s sign says “Stop and Talk to me”. Could it be any more clear? So I drove back, parked my car at the Mexican restaurant nearby and walked over to the ramp where he was standing.
(Side note: I’ve encountered “homeless” scammers before. Once I saw a supposedly homeless man leave his post, walk over to a van full of “homeless” people with a Marshalltown license plate. They were definitely a ring of scammers, travelling here just to pilfer the people of Cedar Rapids. Disgusting!)
So I approached this man with a bit of healthy skepticism. I introduced myself to him and explained I had seen his sign and had come to talk to him. I offered to take him to a restaurant to have supper together. (I figured this would allow me to hear his story and ascertain his real needs.) I also figured that if he was willing to leave his post (i.e. income) and sit down with me to talk that would be a positive sign (I doubt a scammer would leave their post to risk being exposed as a fraud.) He probably would have made more money during that hour than I paid for his meal. If anything my taking him from his post probably cost him money.
He seemed glad to accept my offer. We stashed his bike in the back of my minivan and went in to the Mexican restaurant. Over the course of the next hour we ate fajitas and I had the privilege to hear his story.
As I once learned in the book “When Helping Hurts,” the only way to truly help people is by first getting to know them. Tonight I did that. I learned a lot about Leonard. I learned that he’s had a hard life. That he likes spicy food. That he lives in a tent with his buddy Tim (another homeless guy). That he thinks his main need is for money (it isn’t). That he doesn’t utilize all the services that are available to him. That he wants to get a real job, but never will until he presents himself better. What he needed tonight was someone to give him some spicy food, to listen to his story, to believe in him, to offer some perspective, and to pray for him.
And to think I almost missed it due to pride, laziness, indifference, prejudice, selfishness, and ungodliness.