If you’ve been around Nashville at all – or in any major city – you’ve likely seen somebody selling newspapers. I’m not talking about someone selling your Wall Street Journal or New York Times. I’m talking about the person standing at the stoplight, drenched in sweat, smiling and waving, while you pretend to fiddle with something on the navigation panel or check your phone. Or, let’s be fair, perhaps you’ve looked at them, but with pity or fear or loathing or guilt in your eyes. It has happened to most everyone, me included. Well, as I learned recently, those people are “vendors,” or members of the homeless community, who have been given the opportunity to sell the newspapers, earn an honest income, (the vendors purchase the newspaper for .75 cents, sell them for $2, and keep whatever profits and “tips” they accumulate) and hopefully get back on their feet. They’re felons, parents, alcoholics, drug addicts—sometimes all four at once, but if they’re standing in the heat for hours upon hours selling a newspaper, chances are they’re trying to make a change. I believe that.
Yesterday, I was attempting to exit the Green Hills Trader Joe’s parking lot, but got held at a long stoplight during rush hour. People were honking, in such a hurry to get home, get their kids, get groceries, get to the Green Hills Mall to shop at Banana Republic and Free People—it was chaos. But, as I sat at the light, I looked to my right and there was a vendor. In the moments that followed, a few thoughts passed through my mind– ones that always seem to cycle through when I see a homeless person. One was, “If you’ve done it to the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.” Pretty straight-forward. Another was, “That could be you. That could be your dad.” And that is true. My dad and I were homeless a few times, at a few different stages in my childhood. Then, after several years of not being homeless, after I moved to school, he lost his job. By the grace of God he found a new one, but we’ve been on the cusp before. The third thought was another bible verse: Galatians 2:20, wherein Paul stated,
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (NIV translation)
Here’s the thing. I don’t usually give money directly to the homeless. One reason for that is because I rarely carry cash. During the holidays I carry some so I can donate to bell ringers and the gift wrapping people at Barnes and Noble, but that’s about it. The other reason is that in my experience, there’s something about sharing food with another person that is more valuable, and yet, it’s difficult to sell a meal for something else. Food is sustenance, and sharing a meal with others is one of my favorite forms of fellowship. Now, I have gotten mixed receptions to that in the past. Once, after offering a woman my entire grocery store purchase, (she was holding a sign that said, “Hungry, poor, can’t feed kids”) she asked me, “What am I supposed to do with that?” On the other hand, one time in Knoxville, I bought an elderly woman lunch and then walked with her down the street, toward the park where she lived. As it turned out, she had a prosthetic leg, because she’d been hit three times while crossing the road. She lived in a bush. Before I bought the meal, she was asking for leftover bread. She shared of herself with me, and I told her some about myself. I asked if I could pray with her, and in her prayer she thanked God for being blessed with a meal and a place to sleep at night. All this happened because I bought her a sandwich and a bag of chips and a Coke. And it wasn’t just between the two of us. It was between us and the clerks at the deli who saw what I did, and my friends who let me wander off in a foreign city because they knew that once I got that compelling urge to do something, I had to do it.
That same unshakeable impulse made my bones itch as I sat at the solid red stoplight. “Do something,” I heard. I had just purchased a bag of apples for myself, along with a few boxes of soup that I had picked up for a friend. Not much, I thought, but it’s something.
I rolled down my window. “Sir?” I called out.
He smiled and came to the window.
“D’ya want an apple?”
“Oh, I’d love an apple! Thank you, Miss. Would you like a newspaper?”
“I’d love one, but I don’t have any cash to give you. I’m sorry!”
He laughed, drew a copy out of the front pocket of his vest, and dropped it on the passenger seat. “Money? No, we don’t count by money. Have you ever read the paper?”
“No,” I replied.
He rubbed the apple on his shirt as he stepped away. The light had changed.
“Read it,” he said. “It’s good. It’s our voice. Poetry is in the middle section. Thanks for the apple.”
I pulled out of the lot and drove north toward Springfield. Being my analytical self, I was happy to have the 45 minute drive to reflect on what had just happened. I knew that I had to write about it, but the thoughts were scattered and hazy. The experience with the homeless man was the lone drop of rain that, splashing into an already swollen lake of similar experiences, caused the dam to overflow.
Last night I read The Contributor all the way through. When I got to the poetry, in a poem entitled “Your Light” written by Darrell K., these lines caught my attention:
Like a sailor lost at sea
I’ve lost confidence in me.
But now I know I’ll come through
once I see the hope in you.
That led me to a quote from my favorite banjo-playing theologian, Ron Block:
“As we go on, we see our suffering producing perseverance, then character, and hope. Our losing is really gaining – not just for our own selves, but for others. That hope in us explodes more and more upon the world around us and they begin to catch it.”
If I know anything, it’s that there’s a lesson to be learned in everything– even the smallest events and happenstances that most people would glaze over. I’ve never been more aware of the ongoing lesson I am being taught in this life than I have been in the past few weeks, and I’m still not quite sure I can say what exactly it is. More recently, I feel like I’ve been knocked on to my bum in the best way possible. I have both given and received such an unfathomable amount of love in my short lifetime. Love is what has made me the person I am today. If I had to come up with a broad lesson, I’d say it’s that God is real, He is here, and He is working in every moment of your life – good or bad – whether you believe it or not, whether you see it now or reflect on it later, because He loves you.
That is damn-hard to believe, I know, but it’s true.
To attempt to narrow it down in scope, I’ll quote The Son of Laughter, Chris Slaten from his song “Partington Cove”:
Oh, how love can change who you are
in a matter of moments, in a day.
No one ever told us we need not go far
to travel such a long, long way.
Every interaction you have with another person is a chance to be that hope, that light, that love to someone else, and to show them that you have a wondrous God residing in your heart that is the source of all of it. I don’t love my neighbor because a commandment told me to, or because I feel guilt or pity toward another person. I love my neighbor because in dying to my old self and accepting salvation, I have become indwelled by Christ, who is Love, and who loves through me.
So, seize those opportunities. Listen to that voice, and respond to that call. Let love change you.