My son attends a university in a busy, sometimes overwhelming urban center. It is an oasis in the midst of skyscrapers, parking garages, and what I would call, in the right company, a collection of unsavory characters.
I took him to campus on a very cold night shortly after we had experienced some wildly freezing temperatures and rare snow. During our little blizzard, I was fairly put out by feeling incarcerated in our comfortable home with a full pantry and central heat. Those freezing nights were forgotten as I drove through town with the car heater roaring, cutting through side streets to shave off time from my trip so I could get back home before a new round of freezing rain hit.
When I made the last left before approaching campus, my headlights illuminated an unexpected scene in a recess along the side of an old stone church. Three men were huddled together, trying to keep each other warm and away from the biting wind that swirled debris at their feet just inches away from the makeshift safety of the walls.
I’ve seen such a scene before — it’s inescapable in a big city such as this one, but I’ve seen it in Miami, and New York. In Anchorage and Paris. It’s always the same — the dim realization that there was a homeless person, and then the quick adjustment to avoid seeing their eyes. You see, to look into their eyes would be to acknowledge their humanity, and if I did that, well, I’d have to do something more, and that would be uncomfortable, donchaknow. It would be risky, and not in the they-must-be-sociopaths-and-I’m-going-to-get-mugged way.
I would have to see Christ in their need, and I’m a big fat coward and, let’s face it, too self-absorbed to really face up to that. But I have a soul and a conscience and whatever I didn’t do that night and remained undone was perhaps overshadowed by the image that remained.
As the three men huddled together in the recess, I became aware of their disparate sizes — the one in the middle was very tall and younger, and he was flanked by an older man, and a chubby man of indeterminate age…and the one in the middle was trying to spread out a light blue blanket across the three of them, perhaps not so much to keep them warm as to act like a windbreaker.
The whole scene was colorless. It was late at night, the church stone, once probably light gray or even dazzling white was covered in soot and years of exhaust from buses and cars. The men were in dark clothes, made darker still by dirt and grime. But the blanket looked new. Clean. Warm. And its bright cheery blue was out of place in such a gray monochromatic place.
In the few seconds it took to complete the turn and remove the assaulting headlights that exposed their need, I lamented not having the usual blanket that I carry in my car. It was out of character for me to think it with the intent of actually following through. I must have felt real regret, too, because my next thought was the revelation that they would be okay that night. The bright blue of the blanket was as if Mary’s very own mantle would comfort them that night.
It resonated with me in light of two things that I had recently read, the first, The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen, was quite fresh in my mind. So fresh, in fact, that I had only finished it hours before while in the car on the way home from a trip. The other, a blog post by a guest writer at Michael Hyatt’s blog, Intentional Leadership (add him to your regular reading list), called How Do You See People? Read it. Prodigal Son might be more of a time investment (though worth it) but this post really captures, for me, how I see the poor in our society, and I’m not really talking about the three guys on the street.
Everyone we meet has something they are struggling with, praying about, surviving. We would do well to listen.