Two Months and a new friend... (one life changing story of the past two months of my life)
It was nearly two months ago when I drove under the bridge near my home and saw three men sitting on the sidewalk. They were laughing and carrying on but I knew life was not an easy experience, as the sidewalk on grape st under the 5 freeway was the home of these men. I felt a nudge in my spirit, "Cari go visit them, bring them some dinner." I ignored the nudge I must admit. I ignored it for nearly a week. Then one night while driving with a friend to my home I finally said, "OK!!!, I'll go" I asked my friend if she would go with me to bring dinner to these men. I had no idea what would transpire.
That night we brought them dinner, learned their names and shared just a taste of life. Two days later, we brought dinner again and invited them to our church Easter feast in the park. After that feast, I would stop by each night under the bridge. These three men had somehow wormed their way into my heart and they had become friends. I called, them friends and I looked forward to seeing them each day as my friends. I last saw the three together, Mike, Bob and Bongo the following Saturday night. We chatted and they each told me they were looking forward to seeing me the next morning at church. I couldn't wait. That next morning came and my friends didn't show. So I went out looking for them. I found Mike, who told me of an event that took place the night before and the three had parted ways. His heart was broken.
That evening I saw Mike sitting alone under the bridge. It was strange. It wasn't okay with me. To have to live on the street is hard enough, but now to do it alone, I just hated to see Mike there so i pulled my car over and asked how he was doing. He started to cry as he shared about his day and his longing to go home. He said he wanted to stop drinking, or at least drink less to save the money he was earning by "flying a sign" (or holding a sign to earn money) to buy a bus ticket to go home. I felt a nudge in my spirit and said, "if you really cut back on drinking and you save your money, we'll find a way to match it until together we can get you a ticket!" He wept, a huge relief had just been lifted and there was a sign of hope.
I saw him the next day and he told me he had saved $40. The home church which meets at my house on Wednesday agreed to come together to help buy his ticket and match his funds. I saw him again through out the week and he'd give me an update on how things were going and he was saving his money quickly. Mike said he'd come to church with me the following Sunday. Sunday came and Mike came to church with his backpack and sleeping bag in hand. He smelled like one who lived on the streets and he brought a friend who he had met the day before, Ace. (Ace was blind and Mike was helping him find his way around town... there are more stories about Ace!) I watched as people in our church hugged them both, welcomed them into the church and saw two men standing before them who needed a family. No one questioned if it was okay for these men to be there, no one asked why they didn't bathe, no one spoke harshly... they just loved. It was so powerful.
That night I noticed that Mike's mattress was gone from under the bridge. He was not there either. The next day came and went, no Mike. The next, still no Mike. (I've decided one of the difficulties of making friends with people on the street is that there is no way of communicating with them, except in person. There is no address to go to, no phone number to call, no email address... you just had to go out looking.) Thursday I was sitting in my living room talking with a friend when i saw Mike and Ace walk by our house. I shot up, ran out the front door and shouted, "MIKE!" he turned around and we greeted one another. He told me he had saved enough money and he bought his own ticket! He was going to leave in one week! I said well then, we're going to throw you a good-bye party and fix you your favorite meal, a T-bone steak.
That Sunday Mike showed up to church again, saying hi to all of his new friends. Then after church we gathered together to throw MIke a party at Balboa Park. It was great. He helped set up, we grilled up steaks and shared stories. I learned more about him and his family. He had been on the streets for almost two years. It's been a rough two years. He spoke of the experience and told me he had seen things he'd not speak about again and most certainly not in front of a lady. I noticed something that day. MIke would ask to help and everyone would say, "no, this day is for you!" he'd ask again and over and over people, including me would say, "oh no, this is for you! we want to give to you today!" I noticed his countenance change each time when people would say no to his offer for help. So I asked if he'd help me do a project. It was amazing, by serving and being a part he knew he really belonged. (I learned so much just from that one encounter. How often to we just want to do things for people, when it is through including them that there can be true belonging!) Anyway... we gathered around Mike and gave him gifts individuals had purchased. We spoke of how he'd always have a family to come home to in San Diego and we prayed for him. He cried as he prayed for us.
MIke asked if I'd hold on to his bus ticket until Wednesday when he'd come by and pick it up. He didn't want to loose it. So I took the ticket and soon it was Wednesday. The doorbell rang promptly at 5:00 p.m. and I found a very scared man on my door step. Mike and I talked for about an hour and he wept bitterly, saying, "you make me cry! why do you make me cry..." then he'd say, "Cari, I just want to go home, please can I just go home." I didn't know how to take the pain away, calm his fear or really know how to say anything that would comfort him. So here we were, quite the unlikely pair sitting on my door step. It was an uncomfortable hour. There was so much pain in him and I felt as though i had so little to offer him. I had made him a gift to send, along with cards from others who wanted to wish him well, it was a small book of statements about identity. It began, "Mike is... valuable, known, created and so forth." As Mike wept, he began to question who he'd become and he'd say, "I'm nothing but a piece of crap!" I'd reply no... you're so much more. Then we read the book together. It wasn't a profound moment while in it, but as I look back I learn from every recounting of the conversation.
This man was filled with shame, he was the prodigal and he was going home. (I felt like I was sitting with the Prodigal son right before he left for his home, just wondering how he'd be received. Quite frankly I wondered how he'd be received. What had happened? Did Mike tell the truth in his stories? I didn't know. I just knew I was to love him and see him off.) It was long hour, we hugged and he told me he loved me and I don't think I'll ever forget seeing him and feeling the strangest love for him, God gave me it and I didn't understand it. He gave me the number of his niece to call and make sure she knew when to pick him up and off he went.
I wondered if I'd ever see him again. I wondered about his niece. I wondered many things. I called Janna and left a message. The next day she called back and said she was so glad to get the call. She had been very worried about him, the whole family had been from the sounds of it. She was excited to know he had gone to church with me and was excited to pick him up. The very next day, I got a call from MIke. He made it to Waterloo, Iowa and he was chatty about the bus ride, but there was relief in his voice. He was home, and he was loved!
I needed to share this story with you because I'll want you to understand this part of my story. You see, Mike left his mark on me. I'm still rummaging through the experience and finding all kinds of surprises in it. He's an unlikely teacher, but he had a lot to share.
There is a world full of "Mikes" around us. People who are trapped in the stories of their own lives who need someone to listen, to care and to respond. There are real needs from socks and shoes, to someone who will listen, to food, to reconcilers, to broken hearts and spirits. Oh the world is aching for the grace of Jesus! I pray that you'll experience it and pass it on. I pray you'll look for opportunities and as you receive from Jesus, that you'll pour out of that abundance. He is so good. Taste it! see it! Know it!