What I Learned This Summer, Part II: Homelessness

This is the second part of a four part series. Read part one here.

Last week, I gave a brief overview of the lessons I learned relating to my photography business over the course of the summer. This and the next two posts deal with some thoughts I have, and lessons I learned, relating to a myriad of topics such as homelessness, “guarding one’s heart,” suburban homes, and the Gospel.

I returned home from my spring semester to find our local newspaper, the Howard County Times, sitting on our kitchen table. One of the prominent stories (now mysteriously missing from internet archives) discussed the problem of homelessness among students in Howard County. In one of the wealthiest counties with one of the best school systems in the nation, about 500 students do not have a regular nightly home. Some are shuffled around among extended family members; some are literally homeless. I was astounded. Further internet searching led me to the Plan to End Homelessness, a document detailing a Howard County initiative to prevent future homelessness and help those already without a home (around 220 at the beginning of 2010).

What can I do? The question began pinging around my brain almost daily. The homeless, unloved, stuck where they are whether through unfortunate circumstances, mental imbalance, laziness, or some combination of any number of factors. Passed by on the streets, considered a burden. Yet are these not also children of God? Are they not as deserving of love as those of us who consider ourselves well-off? At the same time, what point in there is throwing money in the jar they’re holding? Is that love; does it solve anything? I am one redeemed by Christ on no merit of my own. By His grace and by His power I can participate in His work to redeem and restore all things – what then can I do?

At a major intersection near my town, where several big-box strip malls stand, there are often one or two homeless, cardboard signs in hand. Several times, I passed by, noticing the same tall man wearing long pants in the early heat of Maryland summer. What can I do? A sense of fear and a sense that I couldn’t do enough or do anything effective paralyzed me for some time. I was well aware of a deep irony: my trips that brought me past him were to get a tailored pair of dress pants at a nearby clothiers, an expensive article of clothing I expect to wear twice a year. This man had no such luxury. So one day, I parked the car and walked down to the intersection, waiting for traffic to stop so I could cross.

Introducing myself, I asked his name. “Calvin,” he said. His sign read Homeless, God Bless. He wore a faded baseball cap and a scraggly beard, yet had life in his eyes. Hope, even. We talked for about 5 minutes as cars passed by and one or two people gave him some spare dollars. He thanked them profusely and waved as the nonstop bustle of my hometown continued. Calvin told me he had lost his job in the recession about a year or so previously. A job prospect in Arizona had fallen through, but he was hoping to be hired again very soon. The loss of his job and his home forced him to turn to God. The words of the Bible sustained him; the trust in God and His goodness kept him going. He spoke in glowing terms of God’s faithfulness – such joy in such a situation! I spoke what encouragement I could, agreeing with Calvin – God is faithful. I shook his hand and gave him what cash I had as I left, speaking a sincere “God bless you,” as I left. “God bless you,” he responded, “I look forward to meeting again in the celestial city.”

I spent the ride home trying not to burst into tears as I thought of this man’s astounding faith and peace in such a difficult situation. I thought of his sincerity and gentleness. I thought how strange it was that in my attempt to bless another in the name of Christ, perhaps it was I who left with a greater blessing.

I passed by Calvin twice more that summer, stopping once to get him a bottle of water on the day that was particularly hot. I haven’t seen him since, and I pray he got that job he had mentioned to me.

I relish the chance that I would see him again – not here, but in that celestial city, that New Jerusalem.

What can I do? I do not know the full answer. But I do know that homelessness is not simply a problem to be solved – the homeless are a people who need to be loved. Tossing money their way as I walk by is not love. Acknowledging their humanity, having a conversation, offering them a meal or drink – I’d say love looks a whole lot more like that.