As I was walking home from college the other day, I ran into a local homeless man who frequents the campus grounds. His name is Greg and everyone at school knows who he is. He sticks around the campus because he feels appreciated by the community there. Actually, most people ignore him, but there are a few kind hearted souls who try their best to make him feel welcome. For as long as I’ve been attending classes there, I have walked past this man every so often on my way to class, never stopping or giving a second thought to how his day must be going.
But this time was different. Something compelled me to greet him, as I passed by and exchanged some brief small talk. I immediately noticed something unusual about Greg this afternoon as he began to tell me all about his struggles and hardships as a homeless man on the streets. He was suffering. And suffering terribly. While he admits to have “done this to himself,” he desperately wants to live a normal life again.
I watched him cry as he gave voice to the torments of his soul, living his life alone and unloved in the slums of Escondido, always wondering if today is the day he will die. Awaking each frigid morning on a hard concrete sidewalk only to remember how utterly hopeless his plight seems. Dragging himself through the city streets in search of any food he can find, breaking laws just to survive, wishing only for the forgiveness of his ex-wife and the company of his son or at least the consolation of a fine steak dinner. Looking on with contempt at all the busy people around him who have so much yet appreciate so little; with their attractive spouses, their fancy cars, their college degrees, and their hordes of cliquish friends. Wondering if perhaps God loves these people more than him, and if God loves him at all, why his lot in life must be such an abysmal one. Wishing in the midst of his despair for death to end it all.
In all my years as an evangelist (not very many, actually), there is nothing that could have prepared me for this moment. All of my studies and experience failed me as I stood stricken with compassion for his poor, suffering man. All I could bring myself to say was an apologetic, “I don’t know what the answer is, man.” To which he chuckled with grief and replied, “That’s a good answer, man!”
He went on to tell me that I inspired him due to my kindness, honesty, and positive outlook on life, and that he often prays for me in hope that I will avoid the same mistakes that led him to his current plight. But the truth is, Greg inspires me. The more he revealed about himself, the more I understood how alike we really are. The only difference between Greg and I is that I have a roof over my head and he doesn’t. Sure, he was half-drunk. Sure, he cussed a lot. Sure, he spent what little money he had on cigarettes instead of food. Sure, he was bitter, lonely, and disturbed. But if I were in his place, I might be just the same.
And in some ways I think I am. There are many types of poverty and many types of homelessness. You don’t have to be on the streets to know what loneliness feels like, and you don’t have to be homeless to fear for an uncertain future. You don’t have to suffer physically to suffer spiritually. In some strange way, I connected more genuinely with this man in 20 minutes than I have with my 300 classmates in 2 years. Because in spite of his sinful past and painful present, this is a man who understands the cross. Perhaps more than any of us ever will. And it is the cross which unites us and reminds us that we are all partakers of one human experience. The man on the street in tattered cloths and the man in the classroom in a suit and tie are essentially the same. Take away the pomp, the circumstance, the exterior, and you’ll find that the hopes and dreams of a poor drunk man in Escondido are the same as yours and mine.
In the end, we’re all dreaming about the same thing because we were all created by the same God. A God Who is Love itself. A love so radical that it stooped down to become, essentially, a homeless Man in the slums of Jerusalem. The very kind of man that we so often overlook because we’re just too busy or too important to recognize his humanity. But if we cannot recognize the humanity of a homeless man, how can we ever recognize the divinity of a God Who became one of them?
Christ is not to be found in great cathedrals or in stately universities or in the pompous activity of our daily lives, but in the hearts of our fellow man. The more disconnected we become from our neighbor in real life, the more disconnected we become from Our Creator, and consequently from ourselves. Something that the social media generation would be wise to consider.
While I cannot say what will ultimately become of this man or his soul, I will always remember him as the man who taught me what $96,000 worth of private tuition could not; namely, what it truly means to love my neighbor as myself. Not merely in an abstract, theological sense, but in a tangible, practical way. It is a skill and a virtue that has been lost by so many Christians in the wealthy Western World, and one which desperately needs to be rediscovered.