Homeless people often approach me and ask for help. The dialogue within the Christian community about how to respond to the homeless is very divided. We’ve got believers who see offering any kind of aid other than directing a homeless person to a full-time homeless ministry, as enabling the person to continue to make poor life choices, usually involving substances or laziness. Other believers urge us to offer all kinds of aid, money, food, clothing and other necessities, as well as prayer, and label the withholding of any of these as a blatant disregard of the gospel. Most Christians I talk to strike some sort of middle ground between having a bleeding heart and a cold mind. Many are troubled and grappling to discover how God has called them to extend His hospitality by ministering to “the least of these.”
My policy is always to give food with my presence (a conversation where I hear their story) and never money. Many times I’ve had the one with no place to lay his or her head pray over me and it has ministered to me deeply. Other times I am certain I’ve just been took. And most of the time these two things cross over with one another in some kind of strange blend. Anytime you have a power dynamic where one party is petitioning another to meet a need, it is hard to meet as equals even if you both want to. It’s hard enough in a society that so highly values privacy to stay approachable. For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why it kept being me. It was like I have some invisible mark on my forehead that reads, “this one here.” Now I think it is because I make eye contact. I try to take John Perkin’s words seriously:
“How we do justice is to see God’s image in this humanity and to serve this humanity.”
Zachary didn’t look me in the eye when he spoke to me very softly in the back parking lot of Trader Joe’s. A tall black man with tan work slacks draped over his shoulders, I had to ask him to say again what he was asking for because he spoke so quietly.
“Can you get me some breakfast? It’s been a very long and hard twelve hours. Or maybe you could give me four dollars? I already have six and I’m hungry.”
“Yeah, no problem, I’ll get you breakfast,” I told him. It’s no small thing to make yourself vulnerable and ask for help. Every time I fundraised for my mission trips or school, I felt awful asking for money from people I knew and trusted. To approach a stranger is even harder.
I picked up two wraps and a coconut water as the day would likely climb into the 90’s later on. Jeff at the checkout gave me free stickers for the kids I nanny. I bought one of their anniversary bags I had been wanting for 50 cents, along with some pepperoni and ginger cookies I had come for in the first place.
I crossed to the man who had asked me for food and asked his name. We shook hands.
“You know the Lord, don’t you Sarah?” Zachary asked me. An easy guess for the highly Christianized culture of Dallas. He politely withdrew the white earbuds from his ears, but his cell phone kept pinging from his front pocket. I noticed he still wouldn’t make eye contact with me as we talked, even though we stood across from each other. The stubble on his chin and cheeks was white and irritated, and he wore glasses and a baseball cap with a flattened brim, sun-faded blue.
“I do. How did you know?”
“I met a young lady the other day who did. I have a place to live, an apartment building near here. Me and my friend we just rented it but then he got mad at me over this party.”
“Oh did he kick you out?” I offered sympathetically.
“Well let me tell you-there was about fifteen people over but only four of them were my friends. And then he tells me that he got money stolen from him.”
“And he blamed you?”
“Yeah, he woke me up. I’m a sixth-degree black belt, so I sleep on my back like this,” Zachary crossed his arms vampire-style on his chest, and I nod. “He wakes me up and says his money is gone, one-hundred and fifty dollars worth and I’m like, ‘man we known each other since grade school’ but he didn’t listen to me. And he’s always hanging around our neighborhood, like sittin out front with no shirt on…”
“Have you connected with Our Calling? They could help you find a place to stay and about getting a job?” I left the grocery bag on the ground and grabbed one of the homeless ministry’s business from my car. He takes the card and types their number into his phone.
“Can I pray for you? What’s your name again?”
“Yes, please pray for me. It’s Sarah. And your name?”
We closed our eyes and he petitioned Father God to bless me, and to help me to thrive in my talents, and to surround us with positive feelings. I prayed next, asking specifically for God to continue to provide for Zachary, a place to live and a job, and to show him the great affection He has for him.
“Thank you for praying that for me. That really ministered to me because I have been having a hard time using my talents lately.” I told him. Because I have been lazy. Because I have all this time to write that is God-provided and I ain’t using it. Because I squander His generosity.
“Yeah you know Sarah, I have a degree in psychology so I can read people. I could read that there was something going on with you.” I nodded to this while reflecting that today I am experiencing less anxiety, grief, or fear than I’ve had in months. I didn’t tell him I have an AA in behavioral and social sciences too. We are taught that saying something similar about ourselves is building a connection point, but that’s now how it actually plays out in a conversation like this. The man I am talking to has shared this with me, not because he wants to know how we are similar, but because he wants to be respected and seen as authoritative. It’s one small way he can balance out the power dynamic since I just bought him food. If he wants to know about me, he’ll ask his own questions.
“Why are you taking it out of the bag? He asked me as I began to hand him his items. I catch on that he wants the bag, so I changed it up and pulled my pepperoni and ginger cookies out instead.
“These are for my kids for later,” I explained. He looked startled as if I’m taking from him, and then I realize that trusting him with leaving the bag at his feet when I went to the car for the business card implied to him that the whole bag was just groceries for him.
“Now I just need to get ten dollars, do you have four dollars?” Zachary asked.
“No, I don’t. I don’t carry cash.” Because if I do then I have a hard time saying no and end up lying when I don’t want to give my cash away. I began backing towards my car. “Well, there’s two sandwiches and a coconut water for you, because you know it’s gonna get hot later today, brother. Thank you for praying for me Zachary, and I will keep praying for you.”
“Yeah Sarah, you deserve it.”
I stopped and walked back. “No, I don’t deserve anything. But you know God is gracious and He gives to me anyways because He loves us.”
Zachary’s face drops.
“How can you say that? Sarah, we just prayed for each other and then you gotta go and say that. I don’t like that. Of course, you deserve it you are loyal to God.”
“I don’t believe that. I am loyal to God, but I don’t deserve anything. He is just generous.”
“But Sarah, how can you say that? We are made in His image.”
“Yes, we are.”
“If we’re loyal to God, he’s gonna bless us. You know Sarah, I think I am older than you and I’ve probably been a Christian longer than you have. You do deserve blessing. Like, if I go to a neighborhood and I break into some cars then I don’t deserve for God to bless me, I deserve to get caught. But if I am loyal to God then He’s gonna bless me.” Zachary’s perturbation increased and his gestures became shorter, more closed off. For the first time, he angled his body away from me.
“But that would mean you could earn God’s love. I don’t believe that. I believe God loves us but we don’t deserve anything.” I wanted to say how at times God gives great suffering to the ones who are the most loyal of all to Him, and that this too is a gift because it is an opportunity to participate in Christ’s sufferings, but I didn’t know how to get there simply. I wondered too if this is a difference between my theology and liberation theology of which I have learned little. And I also wanted to show him that we can agree to disagree.
“Sarah I can read people, and I could see you shaking your head just now. And this conversation makes me very uncomfortable.” Zachary picked up his Trader Joe’s bag and left down the side alley.
“Okay,” I said quietly to his back. He didn’t turn around.
On the car ride home I was praying for him. As I make a turn, there’s Zachary cutting through the gas station on the corner, bag slung over his shoulder.
I have no idea what to do with encounters like this, so I pray. All I know is that it is my job to show up and share God’s love, which includes the truth. I know the prosperity gospel that Zachary is clinging to, he doesn’t believe in Grace, he believes in Karma. And maybe largely because he needs to as a coping technique to deal with the suffering in his life. Or maybe, he’s a smooth operator who targets Christians and as a professional grifter is not suffering in the least. I can’t judge this.
When he started mansplaining to me that his faith was more experienced than mine, I didn’t tell him that I have a Master’s degree in Media Arts and Theology and I have been a follower of Christ all thirty-five years of my life because these things were not relevant to our conversation in real-time. Facts that are relevant: I make less than $10,000 a year, but I spent all of fifteen dollars giving Zachary what he humbly asked for. That takes a mere nibble out of the privilege I enjoy as an educated middle class cis white woman daily.
In fact, if I reflect on my privilege further, I have to ask if it is actually easier for me to believe in total depravity and accept grace, placing myself in a place of need and vulnerability, because for the majority of my life I have had the power to make myself fairly invulnerable. My privilege has afforded me shelter, food, my own vehicle, a consistent job, and autonomy to choose a lifestyle that is not even on the table for many, both in the US and globally. I know I don’t have the training to begin to understand the racial and class negotiations that were taking place in my conversation with Zach. What I can consider, is that even if total depravity and grace are ultimate realities established by God, these realities are likely easier for me to believe because even at my most disempowered moment, I have not experienced the lack of power that Zachary is living. So my spirit pleads again with the Holy Spirit, to reach him with the truth and love that is understandably hard for him to receive from my mouth.
Ultimately, I can’t know if Zachary’s prayer was good busking or sincere. But I thanked him for praying for me because I am thankful. I am thankful that he said the things he did so that God could show me yet another way I need to try and surrender my own privilege. This was a divine appointment and the Holy Spirit is still at work through it.
Because I don’t believe in Karma.
I know I am deeply valued by God and that I deserve nothing but He has withheld nothing, granting me every good thing, including this encounter that I can’t understand this side of eternity.
Jesus had good boundaries during His ministry. When the men of power asked Him for a sign, he said no. And He didn’t screen those He healed, those He broke loaves and fishes for, for charlatans. We know from the fact that so many came seeking physical bread later on, that many of those present were just there for the provision and exciting experience. Yet He didn’t withhold.
Some people I know would call my approach to connecting with homeless men and women highly naïve at best. How can I hold to total depravity, the idea that human beings deserve nothing, and still give a stranger, who judging by behaviors alone, is a master manipulator, the benefit of the doubt?
Because I can’t know Zachary’s heart. I can’t know the whole work of God. And because Christ has given me the ultimate benefit of the doubt. If this gives me a bleeding heart, then let it bleed. Jesus certainly did.