A Day of Hope
The girls and I had a full day today. We went and saw “Chimpanzee,” an excellent Disney documentary about a group of monkeys in the African rainforest On the way there, though, something else happened. We passed a homeless man who stood at the corner of the street, a sandy brown dog lying at his feet on a leash and a pair of headphones connected to an iPod covering his ears. The site stopped me momentarily, shook my ready smile. Oddly enough, my first question wasn’t about how a homeless man obtains an expensive iPod–I could excuse that by choosing to believe it’d been a nice gift by someone along the way. Or maybe it was the last thing he’d owned, before he lost all his money, and he hadn’t the heart to pawn or sell it. I’d be okay with that excuse too. So, while it seemed unsettling to see someone holding a sign written in poor penmanship that said, “Hungry and homeless. Please help” jamming to music on an iPod, I bypassed that and went straight to the dog. How does someone who can’t feed themselves care for anything or anyone else, let alone an animal? Granted, the dog was probably a stray and quite possibly very adept at getting his own scrap meals. Too, again, there are numerous explanations and justifications…… the man was undoubtedly lonely, the dog offered companionship and that would be a gift hard to refuse. Still… the whole thing made my heart hurt—-and not out of compassion for this particular man. No. I saw another man’s face in my mind’s eye.
I’ve written about Joey before and undoubtedly will again because he was such a pivotal person in my life. Yet, I didn’t know him, not really. Indeed, I only met him about four or five times, each greeting short, brief and impersonal. But life-changing nonetheless. Joey was a homeless man who haunted a gas station near the college I attended one year. He wasn’t just a homeless man though. He made bracelets and approached me, telling me they were free, all I had to do was promise to help 3 homeless people sometime in my life…. if I made the promise, I could have a bracelet. When I tried to give him money for it, he rejected it, saying that wasn’t what he was after. There was something else about him though. His smile. It drew me like a magnet, and made me return to the gas station on multiple occasions to seek him out. Finally, I went to the gas station to ask him to tell people his name, not just that he was a “homeless man from Nashville.” He smiled brightly, thanked me for my concern and told me he couldn’t because he wanted others to see his face when they saw someone homeless on the streets. My knees buckled, my stomach clenched and my eyes swelled with tears. I knew then that he was an angel. Pure and simple. When I went back to talk to him again, naturally, he was gone and no one had any idea where he’d went. I waited a few years and tried googling “homeless man gives away bracelets Nashville tn” and got nothing except a strange article on Oswald. I waited a few more years and tried tracking him down again. Again, nothing. I tried tonight. Nothing. Because he was an angel. The man’s smile transformed my life, taught me that I don’t have to have a single thing in order to be okay. Actually, I don’t really need anything in order to be happy, except God. It was an amazing thing to witness, it was an amazing feeling….. and it worked. I can’t see a homeless person now without seeing Joey’s face. He was trying to explain that the sadness and the irrational behavior I sometimes see by those on the streets all have a story. He was trying to make those relegated to the outskirts of society shine. Somehow, he believed in the goodness of people. My promise, my word, was good enough to him. He believed that if he could give away bracelets to lots of people who each promised to help three homeless people, then homelessness itself would be helped and diminished. He believed that asking for a promise was worth more than getting an immediate $5 dollar bill with which he could have bought dinner.
Joey had an enviable amount of hope, y’all. Seriously.
I did a little research and found that, as of the 2010 consensus, Nashville has a population of 601, 203 people. Out of that six hundred thousand, about 3500 are homeless. Three thousand, five hundred. Country-wide, our city has what’s called an ‘average’ number of homeless residents. 3,500. Joey could have sold his homemade bracelets for, say, $3.00. By the end of a day, he could have earned, maybe, $60. At the end of seven days, that would be about $420. At the end of 30 day period, and after taking out, say, $200 for food, he could have made around $1600 that he could have donated to the Nashville Homeless Shelter, or, you know, the Metro Homelessness Council or about a half-dozen other legit, good organizations that would have used the money to help the homeless. My point is that he could have asked for money, then donated it, if his passion was getting help to the homeless. That would make sense. That would be human. That would be understandable. Instead, he asked for a promise to help three people. In his mind, he could hope to impact the lives of around 1800 homeless (20 folks every day of the month promise to help 3 people = 1800 homeless people directly affected). Only the number of people impacted would be more than the homeless affected…. those who made the promise would also be changed, bringing the total number per month of people impacted by promising to help another and accepting a bracelet: 2400. Joey was homeless. And he had an enviable amount of hope. Despite whatever his story was, despite all the things that could have made him cynical or depressed, he chose to believe in the good of people: he chose to believe that when someone made a promise, it meant something. Not only that, Joey was happy. I’m the queen at fake smiles and, believe me, no one could have faked the kind of brilliant, awesome and powerfully transforming smile that lit up Joey’s face and blue eyes… every day. Despite not having a home, he was happy and he was happy because he saw the good in humankind, he saw what we’re capable of doing, of what we can accomplish when we unite and hold out an uncertain hand to someone else. Joey was a gem, a verifiable treasure… an angel… and his intrinsic joyful spirit, along with his sincerity, touched me on very deep levels. Today, a good 10 years later, I can’t pass a homeless person without seeing Joey’s face. His dream, his mission accomplished. How I hope he somehow knows it.
Today, when I saw the homeless man listening to an iPod and standing with his pet dog, I wasn’t overly moved. Until the man’s face was changed into Joey’s. Then I was sorry. Suddenly, I remembered what hopeless is, and how it feels. Suddenly, I remembered what desperation is, and how it feels. Sometimes, when my world starts to crash, I have an almost overwhelming need to write…. overwhelming to the point where I can’t focus on anything else. I tune everything else out. I forget what I’m looking at. I drown out the noise that surrounds me with imaginary conversations that I’m going to write. My vision narrows until I don’t really see what’s around me, I just bypass it until my fingers wrap around a Bic pen and I’m able to restore some semblance of peace. There’s a quote that stays with me that says, “The creative adult is the child who survived.” My creativeness offered me an escape route from nighttime terrors that still haunt my dreams. My writing, my leading, my teaching acted as my lifeline in about a gazillion ways. Who was I to assume that music hadn’t done the same for the man I now saw, how did I know he wasn’t fighting off overwhelming waves of hopelessness, isolation and desperation with the assistance of lyrics and melodies? Furthermore, who cared if he had a dog? Allowing a dog to follow him around, allowing a dog to eat a bite of his McDonald’s cheeseburger only showed that he still had the ability to care. And what if all those cynical thoughts in my back of my head, the ones that whispered there were homeless people who weren’t really homeless, were right? What if this fella had a home and money? What if his sign was a lie, and he wasn’t really homeless?
Joey believed me when I told him I was going to help three homeless people. And I want to be like Joey. I value people more than I value being right. I value trust more than I value pride. And you know what? I was taking my daughters to see a movie in a theater…. a couple dollars wasn’t going to hurt me. But I couldn’t be sure that it wouldn’t act as a catalyst for hope and transformation like Joey’s smile and bracelet did for me. So I pulled in to the McDonald’s I saw, bought a meal, then used a blue crayon and the back of the receipt to write the name and phone number of the person in charge of the Benevolence department of my church, along with the words “Isaiah 41:13”. I put the written message in the bag with the food, then rolled to a stop in front of the homeless music man, smiling as I gave it to him. I won’t ever know if he calls the church for extra help, I won’t ever know if he even really needed the food in the first place. Strangely, I hope he didn’t. That’s not really the point. The point is hope beat cynicism today; compassion and sincerity won out over skepticism and misunderstanding.
We sat down in our seats at the theater exactly 1 minute before the previews ended and the newly released “Chimpanzee” was released. Monkeys make me happy. They just really do. I love watching them swing from the treetops at the zoo. I even saw one kept as a pet climb in and out of a car while waiting in line at Steak and Shake (true story). I like everything about them. So I really was looking forward to this movie, and I wasn’t surprised by the overwhelmingly beautiful images of baby Oscar and his mother Isha. I wasn’t even really that surprised at their funny behaviors as they tried to crack open nuts. But, fairly soon into the movie, they showed the most astonishing sight ever: a natural, majestic, huge, absolutely breath-taking waterfall that I would pay really good money to see in person. This thing is unbelievable. And it is surrounded by lush trees and … well… the rainforest, the jungle. It is one of the most beautiful images I’ve seen in a very long time. There I sat in the theater, feeling gratitude overwhelm my heart, so much gratitude that I actually whispered a short prayer of thanks to God for a waterfall and a jungle I have never myself seen. Really, I was thanking Him for the earth. For the beautiful, lush trees that have less and less dominance over my suburban life. For the beautiful waterfall that shows how creative and majestic God is. And for the rich, textured life of thousands of animals and billions of people who all have stories, who all have joyous days and stormy nights, who all play and fight and cry and… live.
We’re used to hearing about the depleting ozone layer (my former Senior pastor, Pastor Hardwick, was rather funny when he talked about the end of the world. Once, during a sermon, he said, “They tell us the sun is going to get closer and closer until the heat burns earth…. I could have told you decades ago the world is going to end…. we’re all going to burn!”), very adorable movies like The Lorax remind us that the natural resources meant to save us are being demolished. The ice is melting, we hear, in areas of the world where that was thought to be impossible. Statistics of abused children and women, stories like this evil and insane murderer , along with ridiculous gas prices, children with cancer, failing economy, peer pressure and about two million other reasons for depression crowd thoughts and eyes. It was a refreshing and much-needed reminder, those images of the African rainforest Tim Allen’s narration described as “barely touched by humans”, that gardens still grow, flowers still bloom, animals still have homes. Beauty still surrounds us–it’s just a bit harder to find. My youngest daughter and I put together a 100 piece puzzle, a puzzle to which the pieces are varying sizes…. America is just a piece of a bigger puzzle, Nashville an even small piece. Optimism and joy comes from not getting tangled up in the smog and debris, not getting lost in viewing men like the homeless music man as cheats. Hope comes by believing my neighbor is an honest and friendly person, compassionate and sincere. Hope comes by believing that we’re all fragile and every word and action matter. Hope isn’t ignorance, it isn’t sheltering myself against truth, rather it’s acknowledging that there’s a bigger picture at play than what I can see with my own eyes. Hope is being convinced that there’s something greater than myself.
Today’s been a good day, a day for gentle reminders to dance in the rain, to thank God for trees and monkeys and angels disguised as homeless men. It’s been a day to rejoice over being human, and to revel in the knowledge that there’s still untouched, thriving land—not to explore and change but to stand in awe of. A day of beauty, a day of play and children, a day of memories, a day of prayer and… most of all… a day of hope.