On my way to youth group on Wednesday night, I stopped at Rite Aid for a soda. As I walked across the parking lot, I noticed a young woman talking to a man leaning against the side of the building. I guess that I noticed his clothing had a certain rumpled quality to it, but I didn’t really think anything more of it.
I went inside, bought a Cherry Coke, and at the register, I made sure to get cash back, $20 in fives. There is a huge amount of homeless people in the Fresno area, and I like having something to give them. I exited the building and began walking through the parking lot back to my car. I looked to my right to see if the man I had noticed before was still there at the side of the building.
He was. Our eyes met for maybe two seconds, and I gave him a nod. Neither of us said anything: It was just a nod, a wordless, “Hey, man.” Then I looked away. I took a drink of my soda and walked a couple more steps, before he shouted out to me across the maybe 25 ft. which separated us.
I stopped, turned, and began to walk back towards him. He expanded: “I saw you nod. You saw me, and you nodded, like…” He trailed off, seemingly not sure how to finish it. “Thanks,” he said again.
I walked up to him, introduced myself, and asked him his name.
“Alex,” he said. We talked a bit. He had a large cut on his lip, and he rolled up his arm to show me bruises: Some “youngsters” had tried to steal his backpack (with nothing but toilet paper and toothpaste in it) the other day. He apologized (twice!) for his raggedy appearance: I told him that nobody worth caring about cared about stuff like that (not the best thoughts on the subject ever, granted). He agreed enthusiastically, saying that there’s only one person who can judge us: Our Creator.
We only talked for a few minutes. I asked him if I could give him five bucks (although I now greatly regret not inviting him into the Rite Aid to load up on granola bars and the like). He didn’t say anything, at first. He looked shocked; he almost looked like he was about to cry. I told him I would really like to help him out a little bit. Finally he said that he would really appreciate that.
So I gave Alex $5 and told him that I would keep him in my prayers. He thanked me, and I walked away. And as I finished the drive to youth group, and for the rest of the night, I couldn’t stop thinking about him.
All I had done was nod to him. I hadn’t even spoken to him at first. I had looked at him, met his gaze, and nodded. And yet that one thing, that gesture, that bare acknowledgement of his existence and his humanity, was enough to cause him to literally call out and verbally and explicitly thank me.
That blew my mind. How terrible is our culture that the obvious, commonplace thing to do is to simply ignore the poor and suffering among us? Yes, it’s always been easier to do that, even for Christians, and it’s possible that it’s always been like this and I merely hadn’t noticed… but when what should be the bare minimum of an interaction between two people fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God becomes something rare and worthy of thanks, we have a problem.
I don’t want to end this with a “Therefore, we should…”, because that makes it sound like I have it all together and am basing my call to action on my own incredible performance. That is so not the case. It is, instead, a recognition of how far short I have fallen each and every time I have avoided the gaze of someone on the street, merely because I didn’t have any money, or because I was in a hurry, because it’s just easier not to look at them than to look at them and be uncomfortable.
I need to do better. We need to do better. I asked him his name, which I think is important: He isn’t “some homeless guy I met at a Rite Aid.” His name is Alex, and he was made in the image of God.