Monday, May 5, 2008

A Lesson Learned Under the Bridge

Connie buzzed me at my desk, "There's a homeless man here who says he needs to speak with you." I was trying to finish my sermon and having a frustrating time of it. Glancing at my watch and a little annoyed at the interruption, I walked out to the main office. He was sitting in a chair in the reception area and the smell hit me well before I was close enough to shake his hand. His name was Tom. He was wearing layers of ratty old t-shirts, a filthy green sweatshirt, dingy canvas pants, and worn out hiking boots. His hair was a sandy grey tied in a long pony tail. Tom had obviously not had a shower or a shave in weeks, maybe months. He was carrying a couple of plastic bags with some food that he had been given at a nearby restaurant.

We call them transients - people not from around here, passing through, down on their luck, and each with a story to tell. I don't know how many are telling me the whole truth, maybe three in ten. Who knows. I have heard so many stories, obviously well-rehearsed but untrue, that I am pretty much deaf to the details. But I hear them out and then Cara and I figure out what we can do. We try to help everyone a little bit so that we don't miss the ones who are genuinely in need. But Tom was different.

Nobody would make up the story this guy told me. He looked me in the eye and gave me the full lowdown on his life. "I been in prison 27 years. I'm an alcoholic and so is my girlfriend. They had warrants for me in this county, so they brought me down here but that's all clear now. I'm just trying to get home to St. Joe. I need to get home. I got people there."

"Where are you living now?" I asked.
"Under the bridge."
"Under the bridge? What bridge?"
"That bridge at the end of Main Street that goes over the tracks. We been living there since I got out. We got no place to go."

Tom showed me a copy of his birth certificate and his Social Security card. I told him we would need some time to make some calls and see if we could help him. He was anxious to get the food he was carrying over to his girlfriend. Tom said, "If you can't help me, that's okay, just tell me now, so I won't walk clear back over here." I said we'd just have to check and let him know.

"Well, I'm gonna take this food to my girlfriend. If you come over to the bridge, just pull up and honk. I'll come running." Tom went on his way while Cara figured out how we could put these two on a bus to St. Joseph.

About thirty minutes later I drove over to the bridge, parking where I could see under the bridge down to the tracks. There they were, a couple of blankets strung on a line and a little camp set up. No fire now but there was a rusty old barrel that looked like their night time fire place. It looked to me like people had been living under this bridge for a long time. I honked and got out of my car as Tom came trotting up the embankment. He seemed surprised to see me. I gave him the bus ticket information and all the details. He gave me a handshake and then a hug, grateful and excited to be going home. That part I know was sincere.

Believe it not, Tom invited me to stay, to come sit down with them for awhile in their place under the bridge, but I declined. I had stretched my comfort zone about as far as I could for one day. Looking back now, I wish I had accepted his hospitality.

Instead, I went back to my office to ponder the sermon that God and Tom had been preaching to me all afternoon. And, I thought about the words on a little wooden plaque my dad always kept in his center desk drawer. "Dare I treat with less than the greatest respect one soul for whom Christ died."

1 comment:

Mike Ruffin said...

Drew,

You had a moving encounter with one of God's children. I always wish we could do more to help such folks in need. We try, but it's like putting bandaids on a tumor.

We indeed need to remember that all people deserve our respect. Christ died for even lousy folks--including me.