I was having a conversation with a little girl this week about those she called “hobos.” I asked her who she thought hobos were and she said, “people who sneak onto trains to ride for free.” I asked her why she thought they might have to do that. She hadn’t yet thought that far ahead.
I told her, “the trains that they ride on are not the kind that have seats in them, they’re just big containers to carry things. “Oh,” was her reply. I further explained that sometimes those people are homeless. In her all-knowing fourth grade voice she said, “No they’re not, they have homes.” As quickly as we had gotten onto the subject we were off as she returned to laughing at the silliness of words like squiggy and Deuteronomy.
Everyone has their ideas as to who the homeless are. They’re drug addicts, they’re lazy, they’re helpless, they’re going to starve without me, they sneak onto trains to ride for free.
Friday night, we ran into an older gentleman. From his neck up he looked like a distinguished professor of literature with his silvery gray hair clipped close to his head and his matching mustache and beard, yet his dirty and torn clothing betrayed him. We did our introductions. His name is James. * In our conversation he began to recite poem after poem of Robert Frost, Thomas Gunn and many others who were but names to me, admittedly ignorant of the strength and beauty of poetry and its creators.
After spending some time with him sharing in his love of words and poetry he stopped and said, “Hi, I’m James,” as he held out his hand in a warm greeting. In this moment his mental illness trumped the mind of a poet and James became another stereotypical homeless guy on the street.
I would love to write here and say that he’s not just another stereotypical homeless guy, but I can’t, because he is.
He is homeless with issues of addiction and mental illness, yet he is also a man of culture and knowledge. It’s easy to choose to see one without the other to make ourselves more comfortable. We know how to deal with a homeless guy who fits into our paradigm of “homeless guy” but we don’t know what to do with a homeless person who is more articulate and intelligent than us or vice versa. Either way we are blind to the person and the gospel.
What do you see and where do you refuse to see? How will you lay down your own comfort on behalf of others to see people as they are not just who you want or need them to be? Will you allow for the presence of both dignity and depravity without dilution, allowing nothing but the gospel to be the resolution of the two?
If so, you may find that James is more the rule than the exception and people may become more than a look, character trait, or talent, but real with a name, face, and bona fide image of God emblazoned upon them.
*Name has been changed