A month ago I saw a homeless man in the busy, business-professional, restaurant laden area of my town. Since I am not actually in Dallas, it is a rare occasion that you see someone who is truly desolate just sitting in the parking lot of our suburban oasis. But there he was. Ryan and I thought he was dead. And honestly, we drove right past him at first. Along with all the other cars and people. There were men in suits and ties, soccer moms with minivans full of children, and groups of girlfriends who were shopping the strip mall behind us, and we all drove right by him.
Story Number One
He had the darkest black skin I have ever seen. He was slumped over in a wheelchair with his head flung over to the side. He was right in the middle of the Chick-Fil-A parking lot at the height of the busy lunch hour.
It didn't even occur to me to stop, we just did what everyone else did, we swerved around him.
And he did not move. To the world, this man was invisible. And by all appearances, he may have very well been in dead.
It only took a few seconds for God to speak sternly to me. "Open your eyes Jenny. What is wrong with you? He is a human. He is my child. Will you not even stop to check on him? How can you swerve around him like that? As if he is a fire hydrant or a dead animal in the road. Turn around. Take care of him. He is mine."
But God... Ryan and I have to meet the band in ten minutes at the church. We have a flight to catch. We have gear to take out of the trailer and merchandise to pack. We have a concert. Plus, seriously, he looks dead. He looks scary. He's right in the middle of the freaking parking lot... I might get hit by a car. And Annie is in the car. What if he has a gun? What if he jumps into the car? My stomach is churning just thinking about him sitting there. I can't turn around. He shouldn't be in the parking lot anyways.
My excuses were impressive. Legitimate. Numerous.
But God's voice was clear. Go back. Not optional. I shouldn't even have to tell you. STOP.
I told Ryan we needed to turn around. He said he knew. I got out of the car and for the first time in a very long time I was scared of a person. This man scared me.
"Sir? Sir? Are you OK? Sir, are you trying to get somewhere? Can I help you?"
He looked up. His eyes were drowning in a pool of tears and yellow poison. I have never seen a man as sick as this.
"I'm trying to get to the bus stop. I'm sick, I must have passed out. I'm sorry."
I could hear the shame in his very tired voice. I asked him if I could push him out of the road and asked where he'd like to go. He pointed to a parking spot away from people in the Blockbuster parking lot. I asked what he needed. Food? A ride? I kneeled down so I could look into his sick eyes. He did not scare me anymore. I felt a deep love for him.
He said he simply needed me to pray for him. "Just pray for me, that's all."
I can pray for you, but what about food? Do you need some food? Water? In my mind, prayer was not enough.
I went and got our Chick-Fil-A out of the car and he began to devour it. He told me he was homeless and on dialysis. He lost his job when his kidney's stopped working. Shortly after, he couldn't afford rent anymore and before he knew it, he was out on the streets. He spoke with simplicity. He was kind. Tender. Well spoken. Straight-forward and honest. He made me laugh when he said that downtown Dallas was too ghetto for he and his two best homeless buddies. So they bus out to the suburbs and spend their days in the parking lots of Starbucks and Barnes and Noble. That is, the days he is not in the hospital. He tells me his bus route and exactly how he gets to the hospital from where we are standing. He tells me the homeless shelters that he prefers. He has no family in town. They do not know he is sick and he says they can't help him anyways, they have all wasted their lives away.
"Just remember me and pray for me when you think about it. My name is Dexter."
You are my Friend Now
I grab both of his dirty hands. His fingernails are long and curled backwards. His hands are surprisingly soft. I tell Dexter that I live nearby and my church is nearby and that I will pray for him, remember him, and check on him. I hold his hands the entire time that I tell Jesus how I don't understand suffering, but that I know we never walk through it alone. I tell him I thankful for my new friend. I beg for healing, provision, and a chance to start over again. I feel Dexter's tears hit my hands. Ryan honks and motions for me to come on, we are going to miss our flight. I tell Dexter I am going to be gone for four weeks but that I will look for him as soon as I get home. He says thank you. And I leave.
I do not stop thinking about him for days. I ask Ryan if we can bring him home if we ever see him again. If we can drop Annie off with a friend, have some men from the church come over, and let him shower and rest in our house. Ryan says he thinks that would be OK. This is not the answer I expected from him. I am blown away at his compassion and conviction. We leave and spend weeks on the road and I ask my friends to please keep an eye out for him. No one sees him though.
I am only home three days throughout the entire month and search for him each time I am back. But I never find him. My prayers become fervent. God please let him be OK. Please let me see him again. I put a blanket in my car and hope that I will be able to give it to him next time. But next time comes and I don't find him. The month gets more intense and I forget about him.
We are running errands. Annie is fussy in the backseat. Ryan is exhausted and has to go get a rental van and trailer. I am trying to thaw out after a horrifically cold photo shoot the day before that left me feeling like I had pneumonia. We are driving by the bank and out of nowhere, in his spot behind the dumpster, there he is. Dexter.
I had forgotten about him. I forgot to be looking. I forgot to pray for him. My heart drops to my stomach. I feel sick. For so long I prayed for him and hoped to find him... but not today.
Seriously, this guy pops up at all the wrong times.
But I am his friend. I cannot drive by and pretend I don't see him (though I really want to) There he is, in his wheelchair, in the Chick-Fil-A parking lot.
Dangit, I am not in the mood to help. To befriend. To love. To give. Neither is Ryan this time. But we have to stop, we know we do.
And deep down I want to stop, but mainly I am afraid. What do I do with him now? Do I bring him to a shelter? Do I rescue him from the streets? What would Jesus do? What is best for him? A million questions rush my mind. I am really not sure what's next in our relationship. Do I simple say, "Yo Dexter! What's up my friend? Need food?" Or, "Hey, Dexter, you're still homeless. Awesome. I still have plenty of money." Do I take him home and give him Annie's bedroom or pretend that he doesn't have needs?
There is no handbook for this. There is just the command to love and take care of the poor. The orphaned. The widowed. And though I'm not sure if he is a widow, he is for sure poor and orphaned. Still, I have no idea what I am supposed to do. I just know I have to do something.
"Hey, do you remember me?"
"I'm sure I do."
"My name is Jenny. You're Dexter, right?"
His eyes well up with tears. "Yeah, that's my name. You know my name so I am sure that I know you." And he smiled.
I handed him the blanket that had been in the car for him and he wrapped it around his shoulders. I told him that the last time I had seen him he was very sick and I was so worried about him. I told him that I had been praying for him and looking for him. I told him he was a tricky little booger to find. And he laughed. I asked how he was feeling and how his treatments were going. "Dexter, what do you need today? Right now, what do you need?" He said the blanket that I brought him was perfect and that he could use some chicken nuggets. And of course, I can just pray for him, he says.
God gave me that question, it just came out. What do you need today? Because really, today is all I can really handle.
Ryan and I went through McDonald's and Ryan insisted we buy him a gift card. This makes Dexter smile. "Thank you so much, so much. Now I don't have to worry about meals right after dialysis. There's a MickeyD's right across the street." He tells me the shelters he's been staying in this week since it has been very cold. Last night he spent the night at the public hospital hoping to get some pain medication. He never got it, but at least it was warm inside. I asked him if Tylenol would help. He says he can only take one if he is in a lot of pain, but that it might be nice to have just in case.
I tell him I will be back. Ryan said we could give him our home phone number. "Dexter, if you need somebody you call us. Deal? If you need help, need a ride, if something happens, you call us. We will come if we are home. Understand? Deal?" He says deal and smiles his beautiful smile. In my mother voice I reiterate, "I'm not kidding, you will call me if you need anything, right? If we can be there for you?"
I get in the car and my heart aches.
Who holds his hand when he goes in for dialysis? Who remembers his birthday? Who brings him soup and puts him to bed when his stomach hurts so bad that he collapses in his wheelchair in the parking lot? Who tells him they love him and tells him to keep fighting? Who does he call friend?
Oh God be near to the lonely. To the broken hearted. Be the father to the fatherless. Whisper into my friend's ear when he walks through hell without a single person knowing his name.
A Small Move
Ryan and I left. I went home, left Annie in the car, and stocked up as much stuff as I could find for him at the apartment. Some of Ryan's socks. A pair of ski gloves (yeah, um, whoever we borrowed them from... you won't be getting those back). Tylenol. And three instant heat packs that my mom puts in our stockings for Christmas. And I wondered what on earth I would do with those things!?! I got a big sweater and a sleeping bag and a hat. I drove back to the McDonald's and he was gone. My heart sunk. This man is toying with my emotions. And my schedule. I feel annoyed at myself for caring, for getting so involved. Am I doing the wrong thing?
Annie and I went grocery shopping and on the way back, there he was, waiting for the bus. here we go again. He told me he was in the bathroom earlier and that my trip to the grocery store must have been perfectly planned so that I could meet him at the right moment. I showed him what I brought from the house and asked what he wanted and what he didn't want. His answer was anything that could fit in his backpack, otherwise, it would get stolen. He asked me if I had a few minutes so I could help him put the things in his backpack. This is a very small move, I realize, but it was a move. And right now I feel like God keeps asking me to take these baby steps into other people's lives.
I felt guilty, but I rejoiced in seeing a bag full of prescriptions with his name on them.
In my cynical world I was still conducting my own background search and trying to fish out the truth about this man and his life. Why? He is not a beggar. He has never asked me for any money. I am the one that stopped and asked him to talk to me in the first place. And he barely took my food the first time I offered it to him. He has only asked for prayer and chicken nuggets. He is not holding a sign, panhandling, doing anything illegal, or taking advantage of anyone. He is just trying to stay alive. Why is it any of my business to try and figure out if his name is really Dexter? Or if he really is on dialysis? Why do I not trust him? Why do I think it is important to make sure he is not lying to me? What is it about us that we feel like people somehow have to deserve our compassion and live up to our litmus test of poverty before we give them the help they need? I was disappointed at my skepticism.
Healthy caution is the result of living in a broken world. But sometimes we have to throw caution to the wind and just love. So what if his name wasn't really Dexter? What if he did something bad or made poor choices and that's why he is here? Would I withhold the socks and Tylenol and chicken nuggets? I am ashamed at the judgement I pour onto people.
I crammed the socks, hat, heat pads, and medicine into his backpack. We chatted for a few minutes like normal adults. As if I was not driving away to a warm house and he to a homeless shelter. I looked deep into his eyes and told him that I was so happy I got to see him today. He shook his head. I felt weird about leaving him like that, homeless and all. But I felt at peace.
Ryan and I cannot rescue Dexter.
Dexter is a grown man who must figure things out and make those huge decisions for himself. But Ryan and I have learned from Dexter that we can be a part of his story even if we aren't playing a huge role. We can just be there. Be his friend. Bring chicken nuggets. Find him in his posh parking lot watching the people pass him by. Hold his hands and pray with him. Get the Tylenol out of the drawer at home and meet a few of his small needs. We can do that much...
And for now, when I least expect it, God is asking me to open my eyes, stop being so consumed with my own world, follow his quiet promptings, and just do something. He is asking me to jump into other people's stories. And he is teaching me how to do that through a man named Dexter.
*This is story one of a four story series*