Rude Awakening-Part 3 of STREET PILGRIMAGE
A toothless, one-eyed man from the streets of New York City offered me his last gift card. My own self-centeredness was assaulted by the reckless kindness of this stranger. Who was this guy and why would he do this? I had found the person that I had been hunting for on my 7-day spiritual pilgrimage on the streets, and he had an elaborate disguise…
My night “sleeping” on the E Train was brutal. I awoke very cold at 5:30am. I knew immediately that I needed to put on more layers of clothes. I pulled my head out from underneath my blanket to see a packed train car of commuters staring at me. What a strange feeling! I felt awkward and exposed. I had never been deprived of privacy like this before and it was very disconcerting.
I rifled through my backpack to find a vest, hat and gloves. I was hoping to fall back asleep, because I was extremely drowsy and disoriented. Overhead the loudspeakers began blasting public announcements. The voice said, “It is illegal to take up more than one space on a train. It is illegal to drink alcohol on a train.”, and “Assaulting an MTA worker is a felony”. These announcements were obviously timed to wake up the inhabitants who called the train home. The intention was clearly to get them out of the way of the commuters. My sleep time was officially over whether I had gotten enough rest or not.
From down the car I heard my friend June’s voice calling out my name. (See Part 2 to learn more about June) Because she was mostly blind, she could not see where I was. As my hostess, June wanted to let me know it was almost time to exit the train. We got off at Penn Station and immediately headed to the bathrooms.
At Penn Station we found police trying to wake people up. It was very difficult because these men and women were in such deep stupors. I wondered how many restless nights it takes to get into such a zombie-like state where you can’t be awoken on the bench of a busy train station. One person was passed out on the floor and completely unresponsive. EMT’s came and wheeled him away. I prayed for him and hoped he would be okay.
June led me outside into the bitter cold. It was still dark as she walked with me to the breadline at St. Francis of Assisi Church. As we arrived, we discovered about 100 people ahead of us already waiting in line on the sidewalk. We cued up and there were quickly 100 people standing behind us. I wrapped my blanket around myself and tried to stay warm as we waited. The people waiting in line were very quiet and stoic. We weathered the cold in anticipation of hot food to revive us. An entrepreneurial man who also lived on the streets walked up and down the line selling “loosies”-single cigarettes.
While standing in line I saw another person challenged with homelessness in crisis. He was lying unconscious on the sidewalk. Eleven Emergency Service Workers came to help him, including EMT’s, Firefighters and Police. Eventually, an ambulance came and took him away for treatment. It seemed like people were dropping like flies. The average life expectancy in the homeless population is estimated between 42 and 52 years, compared to 78 years in the general population.
Our Daily Bread
The St Francis Breadline is 87-years-old. It’s the oldest, continually running breadline in America. St Francis is famous it’s statue of Jesus in the form of a beggar outside the church. Each day since 1930, the St. Francis Breadline has formed at 7AM to feed over 400 people. Thank God for our Catholic brothers and sisters who are so faithful to serve the hungry.
That morning I was desperately in need of their generosity. My back was killing me from sleeping bent over all night and I felt chilled to the bone. Fortunately, the friendly volunteers served us delicious hot oatmeal and coffee. It felt SO good to get that food in me after such a difficult night. It truly rejuvenated me. They also gave us a sack lunch with orange juice, a ham sandwich, a slice of pound cake and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
While I was waiting in line with June, a man approached her with a smile. His name was Billy and it turned out that he had been friends with June for years. Billy was a man with few teeth, a scruffy beard and only one good eye. June told me that he sleeps outdoors on a piece of cardboard.
Billy animatedly told June that some people were handing out gift cards the day before and that he had been given several. He immediately gave a Burger King gift card to June and she thanked him. I was taken aback by his generosity and quite touched. I saw community in that interaction. I saw kindness.
Billy immediately befriended me. I quickly discovered him to be one of the nicest people I have ever met. Billy asked my name and how long I had been homeless. I told him that I had just recently started living on the streets. He asked where I was from, but when I hesitated, he quickly picked up on my discomfort and said, “It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me.” Billy was sensitive to my feelings and possible need for privacy. He kidded around with me, bringing a lightheartedness and joy. He loves to tell jokes and asked me, “What did the hat say to the other hat? I’m going to go on a-head.”
June got a refill on her coffee and it was so delicious that I tried to follow suit. Billy and June watched my stuff while I got back in line. Unfortunately, the volunteers ran out so I returned empty handed, but happy to have gotten the first cup. Billy asked what was wrong and when I told him that they were out of coffee an amazing thing happened. Billy pulled out his last gift card, a Dunkin’ Donuts card, and offered it to me. I was dumbfounded. He knew that I had already drank a cup of coffee and he was willing to give me his last card so that I could have a second cup! Who was this guy?
I recognized this sacrificial generosity. It was Jesus in disguise.
Earlier in line Billy asked, “You know what I want Juan?” I said, “What?” He replied, “To be surrounded by friends.” This man who seemingly had nothing actually was clued in to what the real treasures in life are. He appeared poor, but was actually richer than many powerbrokers on Wallstreet. He gave me tips on how to stay out of trouble with the police and encouraged me to keep my head above the water. I remarked to Billy that it seemed like God was using him to uplift other people around him wherever he went. This was a man that I could learn from.
I thought of times in life when friends or family had given me gift cards. Getting a present of a Starbucks gift card was better than getting cash to me. I had never considered using one of those cards to bless someone else. Jesus had to use someone who was impoverished to teach me about generosity. I want this lesson to stick. Billy was a living embodiment of the Word where it says,
“Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” 1 Peter 4:8–10
Later that morning I sat on the ground with my cardboard sign, panhandling in front of Penn Station. During that hour I made a whole $5. Some kind soul also gave me a bag with a sandwich, orange and water bottle. On the outside of the paper bag was written, “Jesus loves you.” While begging I got extremely cold and couldn’t stop shivering. I could see my breath and my feet felt like ice. The cold concrete really froze my behind.
Later that day, I also panhandled at Grand Central Station. A very strange thing happened there. A young man was walking by wearing a reflector vest, the kind you would wear if you were doing road construction. He looked down at me and stopped. The man held out his hand and in a very southern country accent said, “Man, I don’t have any money to give you, but I can give you this. He reached out his hand to me in a gesture of kindness and I shook it. Then he said, “Hang in there man. One day you will be sitting on a throne.” I thought this a very odd thing to say to someone who is begging on the street. It was only later that I recalled this verse from the Bible:
“He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.” 1 Samuel 2:8
I kept hearing God’s voice coming from his representatives all around me.
Any Port In A Storm
By 12pm that day I felt pretty shot. I was extremely fatigued and spaced out. My back was killing me from trying to sleep on the subway, so much so that I couldn’t even wear my backpack. I remembered the ibuprofen my wife Tracy had given me before I left home and thankfully took it. I have shared in the blessings of the poor through their friendship and generosity, but to truly become one with them maybe I must also share in their pain.
I decided to go to the library to rest my back and journal about my experiences. I walked into the main branch on Fifth Avenue and 42nd street. This building is famous for it’s two marble lions outside. It’s a popular tourist destination, but I was just looking for a place to put my feet up and rest my weary bones. I walked into the main entrance with all the tourists and stuck out like a sore thumb. Security stopped me and let me know I couldn’t come in wrapped up in my crazy looking pink blanket. I asked where the normal library was where I could read the paper or check out a book and they said they did not know. They were eager to get me out of there as fast as humanly possible.
I made my way around the side of the building and found that they had relocated the Mid-Manhattan Library downstairs. Here security was fine to let me in after I put my bag through the x-ray machine. Once inside the reading room, I found a crowd I would fit in with.
The library is one place where people challenged with homelessness can get out of the cold and rest in a peaceful atmosphere. You still weren’t allowed to doze, however, and if you tried they would ask you to wake up or leave. The library is also a good spot to charge your phone if you have one and take advantage of the free Wi-Fi. I pretty much stayed offline all week in order to immerse myself in this experience, but I could see how important it was for others to have access to this tool that we take for granted. People living on the streets need Wi-Fi to find work and communicate with family. For many, it is a vital lifeline.
Several times that day I found myself doing things that were crude and socially unacceptable. Earlier that day I took my boots off in the food court of Grand Central Station. My feet were throbbing and badly needed relief. I tried to hide my stinky feet under the table so that no one would be offended. Later when I was at the library, I got hungry, but knew I wasn’t allowed to eat in the reading room. It was just too cold to go outside and eat so I did something I never thought I would do–I ate in the bathroom. The library had beautiful individual bathrooms that were very clean and covered in marble. Once you got in there, you were all alone and had something that was very precious-privacy. I opened up my sack lunch I had gotten from St Francis of Assisi Church that morning and gratefully devoured it.
Outposts Of Grace
This brought thoughts of the tables and chairs we set out at New York City Relief outreaches. We create a space for people to enjoy a hot meal and be with friends. I had no idea how much of an oasis this could be. Our outreaches are outposts of grace where you don’t have to hide or be ashamed as you eat. This is a place where people are graciously welcomed and shown hospitality. It’s a lot better than eating in the bathroom and certainly much more dignifying.
Later that night I would find myself in a very different environment than the first night as I strived to get some rest amongst throngs of weary strangers. I would sleep on a strange “bed” in a place that is one of the oldest and well-known institutions in America. Stay tuned for Part 4 of this series titled Code Blue…
If you would like to volunteer with New York City Relief or make a donation to bring life transformation to our friends on the streets, please go to www.newyorkcityrelief.org. COME JOIN US!