In my lifetime, I have known a reasonable amount of privilege, though mostly unacknowledged. I was born in the United States which brings with it a certain amount of privileges that the majority of the world does not know. I was not born into a wealthy family, but I was born into a family where both parents had employment and both were committed Christians. My dad had a bachelor’s degree from North Carolina State University and had a job working for a large corporation. He became a minister soon after I was born, so I was raised around people of generally good moral character who had significant influence on me. My parents worked hard to support our family and others. By nature of my conservative religious upbringing, I found myself growing up to be politically conservative as well. I was afforded numerous learning experiences and usually found myself in above average circles academically.
As I became a teenager, certain things became almost intuitive. I knew to get a job. I knew to work hard. I knew to provide for myself and my family. There were times I failed to do some of those things, but I knew what I was supposed to do. I was instinctively generous because I had seen my parents model that all of my life. Though they were probably poor by American standards, it never stopped them from doing their best to assist people. So as I got older, I knew that I should help others. Sacrificing financially seemed second nature at times. However, I had a disconnect between the giving and the understanding of why people needed help.
I have been guilty of many of the assumptions that others make. Things such as “They just need to get a job” or “Why don’t they apply themselves” or “ They could change if they wanted to”. I don’t recall it slowing my willingness to help those in need, but I did begin to recognize I was disconnected from those people. As I grew older, I began to see things through a completely different lens. I began to understand that if just one of the things I listed in the first paragraph had been different, my entire life could have been drastically different.
I started to ask myself questions and look at the plight of others and realize how their circumstances were a collection of many other things, some of them for generations, and I started to become aware that someone changing their life is not always as simple as “if they wanted to”. I started trying to place myself in other people’s shoes and comprehend how education or family background was affecting someone’s plight. Was their location a factor? Though helping financially was necessary, what other things needed to take place to change someone’s life? What could I do to relate better to people in need?
This has been a journey that has taken years. Years for me to begin to understand and appreciate the plight of others. It is still an ongoing journey. Recently I experienced a new part of that journey. I will admit it stretched me, but it is changing me.
One of the things I have struggled to understand is homelessness in America. We are a wealthy country with lots of opportunity, Why are people homeless? Recently, I was visiting New York City with a few members of my family. There are plenty of homeless people there begging for help from passersby. That seems understandable due to the enormous number of people from whom you can ask for help. While there, I asked Barbara, “What would make someone want to continue to be homeless? Could they not change towns and find employment where there may be jobs and lower starting costs? What has to happen to a person for them to accept this as a lifestyle?” As with most of the questions that we ask ourselves, it seemed logical to me. After asking the question, I felt prompted in my spirit that while I was in New York City, I needed to hug a homeless person. I am a person of faith and I believe at times we are prompted by the Holy Spirit to do certain things that may benefit others, but usually it is also a part of our own personal growth.
If you know me, you know I am not a hugger. I know plenty of people who are, but in general I prefer to shake hands. The hugging alone has been a journey for me as I have come to understand that it offers affirmation and comfort to people who need that. Add to that the fact that I prefer to stay clean. Forgive me if I admit that it crossed my mind. Not only would hugging someone challenge me, but hugging someone who may not have bathed in months or whose clothes had not been washed in months would challenge me even more. The thought of that pressed every sensibility that I had. As we journeyed each day around New York City, each time we passed a homeless person I was reminded of what I needed to do and wondered exactly how that was going to happen. Was I just going to walk up and ask for a hug? Would they think I was trying to harm them? Would they say no? Would we have a conversation? What do I say? What was I supposed to learn?
On Saturday night before we were supposed to leave the city the following day to fly to Moscow, we were walking down 8th Avenue near my favorite burger place in New York City, Shake Shack. It was crazy busy as most Saturday evenings are. It was a mild fall evening and people were enjoying being outside. As we strolled along to our hotel, we passed by a homeless man begging on the sidewalk. He was squatting, holding his head with one hand while holding a small sign requesting money with the other. The sign was so small and illegible that you would need to stop to read it. There was a small Dixie cup in front of him to collect money, but only a few coins were inside. He never looked up as we passed by, but as we did, I felt that prompting again. We continued walking to the end of the block and I could go no further. I asked everyone if they could wait a few minutes and I turned around to go back to the homeless man.
When I got to him I introduced myself and extended my hand as I would anyone else. He said a name, but I do not recall what he said. He did not offer his real name. I didn’t know that at the time, but he would later tell me his real name. I got down on the sidewalk beside this man while people hurried by and I asked him to tell me his story. At first he said he didn’t have much of a story. I really think he thought I was the police. But I asked him to tell me how he ended up homeless. He recognized that I really wanted to know and he began to tell me about himself. He had been a tattoo artist for 25 years. He was from New Jersey. He had tried to open his own tattoo shop and had put everything he owned into it. Something happened with other partners or investors and he lost everything. He had been homeless, on the streets begging for about six months. He was looking for work hoping to change his plight, but for now he had to resort to sleeping on the streets, eating food that people gave him and begging for spare change. He talked about the emotional toll that it was taking on him which he described as worse than the physical toll. I told him my name again and I told him that I was a pastor and from that day forward I would pray specifically for him. I was there for a reason and I knew I couldn’t leave just yet. I asked him if I could give him a hug. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and surprise on his face. We looked so different but we weren’t that different at all. There on 8th Avenue in New York City, a wall came down for me. I needed the hug as much as he did. As people passed by, many of my own prejudices and lack of understanding came crashing down as I had taken a few moments to understand someone else’s circumstance.
“Jesse,” he said, “ My name is Jesse”. That is not what he told me when I first introduced myself, but suddenly once he knew that I wanted better for him and was sincere about praying for him, he trusted me with his name. He had not even trusted me with his name until he knew I cared about him.
So every day now I am praying for Jesse. Before I left I told Jesse that I understood that he needed more than prayer at that moment, so I reached in my wallet and gave him money. He was grateful. So was I. The money was easy for me. The hug required me to grow.
The Holy Spirit prompted me so I could grow and Jesse could be comforted. I understood more about a single person because I engaged them instead of passing judgment. What a different world we would live in if we would engage one another instead of living in our assumptions and judgments when we have never sat down beside them in their situation to find out why they were there. I hugged a homeless man because I needed to learn something. People want to be understood. People want to be loved. They just want to be heard. And for a brief moment on 8th Avenue in New York City I was the Jesus that Jesse needed to see.