The Final Stretch- Part 14 of STREET PILGRIMAGE

Chapter 14 The Final Stretch

After an exceptionally long week (which is the understatement of the year) of living on the streets of New York City , it was finally the last day of my street pilgrimage. As my experience was concluding, I learned something very valuable from a man who was pretty rude to me. He was suffering from homelessness, and was grumpy from a long night of trying to sleep on the subway train. I wasn’t surprised at his behavior, because having had the exact same experience myself, I could relate and didn’t take his bad attitude personally. What did surprise me was when he actually apologized, leading to a very meaningful encounter…

I saw things during this week living on the streets that I will never forget. Here are a few memories that come to mind: While panhandling outside of Penn Station I saw a man walk by with makeshift sandals constructed from tape. His feet were swollen to the point of disfigurement which made my jaw drop. It was freezing outside and I was shivering. How could he just be wearing pieces of tape? I wanted to yell out, “NO!”, chase him down to find out what was going on and help him immediately, but I was held back. Although It was hard to see him suffering and not do something to help, that’s not why I was out there. I was on a spiritual pilgrimage.  My reason for being there was to understand his pain, not heal it. I felt terrible and powerless. Seeing the man in that condition left me shaken and weepy–probably because I was so exhausted and emotional myself after a week of sleepless nights.

As I walked alone down the sidewalk, I passed a drugstore and saw a little Asian woman curled up on the floor with some plastic sandals on–no socks even. Again I was shaken and wanted to go into savior/rescue mode. This was unacceptable so I looked , grimaced, questioned myself and then moved on. How could I see someone so elderly, frail and vulnerable and not do something to help her? Earlier that morning I saw men sleeping outside on the frigid sidewalk, one without even a blanket. I don’t know how they could stand it. Death was so close for these people and I felt the weight of it.

The homeless situation is worse than you could possibly imagine–people suffering greatly, self-destructing slowly or quickly like human time bombs. Despite all of this heartache, I also saw Jesus working amongst the lives of the burned out and brokenhearted. There was beauty hidden beneath the ashes. That week I experienced brokenness myself at a whole new level, but also experienced God’s presence along with peace and joy–a bittersweet experience that is still changing me. Your soul cannot be exposed to the depth of the human condition that I had encountered and come away unchanged. It reminds me of a quote by Bryan Stevenson in his book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

“There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”

Allowing myself to feel others pain was changing me. Although I had worked amongst the houseless for 16 years at that point, I could feel my heart of stone turning into a heart of flesh. I had compassion before, sure, but this was another level that the master potter was using to shape my heart to resemble his. 

The Father’s Heart

That last morning, I went to a place called The Father’s Heart for breakfast. Since 1997, this ministry has operated many programs helping people move from dependency to dignity and from poverty to prosperity. I was just there because I was hungry and boy was I glad that I had picked this place to eat.

When I arrived, there was a line running all the way down the block (see above). A regular volunteer named Jesse went out of his way to engage me while I waited in line. Jesse was exceptionally friendly and even prayed for me. When I finally got inside, the place was packed and jumping. They had 150 happy volunteers serving a hot breakfast to about 300 people. The eggs and hashbrowns were delicious.

As I sat down to eat breakfast, I kept my head down because my parents had been friends with the founders, Pastors Chuck and Carol Vedral for a long time (See Pastor Chuck above). They knew me and I didn’t want to be spotted and found out. As I ate my sumptuous breakfast, one of the staff, named Pastor Terry was befriending some men sitting next to me. He was pouring out love on them and was so encouraging. He was so genuine and the men could tell he was being real. This was my kind of place. The Father’s Heart truly lived up to their name.

After breakfast, I left to go panhandle in Washington Square Park (see picture below). I found a good spot under the famous arch. After not too long, a man pushed a full-sized piano in there next to me and started playing classical music. He was quite talented and the music reverberating off of the inside of the arch was sublime. He invited some of the crowd to lay under the piano (see photo above) to hear the beautiful sound of the piano resonating off the instrument and the concrete surfaces around it. I raised $16 and 2 hand warmers that morning. The pianist gave me $5, which I thought to be exceptionally kind of him.

St Joe’s

I stayed in lower Manhattan that day in order to visit St. Joseph’s Church for lunch. It was located only a block from Washington Square Park at 6th Avenue and Washington Place. I discovered St. Joe’s through a directory of New York City soup kitchens called Street Smarts. This booklet was a godsend to me as it provided a map (see above) showing every organization in the city that served hot meals. New York City Relief has been distributing these booklets to people for years, but this week it was keeping me fed. To my delight, I discovered that not only was the food delectable at St. Joe’s, but the customer service was excellent too. The team there decorated the whole dining hall for St. Patrick’s Day (see below), including the volunteers wearing silly green hats. Instead of the room being a dark dismal basement like some places, they had transformed the space into an uplifting environment. I can tell you as a recipient of their creative efforts, these personal touches matter. 

I sat down next to a disheveled looking man with a tired face and tried to make small talk. He was grumpy and callously gave me the brush off. Afterwards, he said that he was sorry for acting that way. The man explained that he was exhausted from sleeping on the train the previous night. I told him that I could relate to his experience and that I hated trying to sleep on a moving train. I remarked that I had stayed at the New York City Rescue Mission that week and liked it much better I liked it. The man replied, “Yeah, but you have to go in by a certain time.” I agreed with him, but related how much I enjoyed the hot shower and comfy bunk. 

I told the man that I had slept in Port Authority the night before and that it was preferable to the subway shaking me awake while it bounced down the tracks. He liked that idea and remembered seeing people sleep there before. I taught him the trick that a man named Jacques had taught me to avoid getting hassled by the police. Jacques and his wife are house painters who sleep on the streets during slow periods like winter when there isn’t much work available. 

I explained that if he bought a cheap NJ Transit train ticket, the authorities wouldn’t toss him out of the waiting area into the cold night. The man asked how much the ticket had cost and I replied, “$3.50.” I gave him my ticket to use and said that I wasn’t planning on staying there that night anyway. He was touched by my gift and quite thankful. I offhandedly asked if he’d heard of The Relief Bus. He wasn’t sure. I gave him a New York City Relief connection card and told him the organization had great soup and free socks, hoping that he would drop by the outreach sometime. This connection card is a tool NYCR uses to communicate the times and locations of all of our weekly outreaches. (Download and print your own!)

Had we not continued our conversation, it could have been very easy for me to base my opinion of the man on his first impression. His initial behavior was awful and he didn’t seem like a very nice person. This is how many people struggling with homelessness get judged–at their very worst moment. It reminds me of a quote by Brennan Manning in his book, The Wisdom of Tenderness.

“Most of the time we’re wrong in our judgement of others. The tragedy is that our attention centers on what people are not, rather than what they are and who they might become.”

Once I took the time to slowly and gently nudge my way through the man’s walls, he softened and I found that he wasn’t a bad guy at all, just incredibly tired. After we pressed through the awkwardness, I could start to see who he really was, and even who he might become. By being patient, I had made a friend.

Sonya, Back From The Dead

After lunch, I made my way towards Penn Station to begin my long awaited return home. In Penn, I met a lady in a wheelchair who was begging for change. The woman looked like she had experienced some serious trials in life. I was drawn to her at that moment and knew I was supposed to connect on a human level, not just coldly hand her some coins. I did give her all of the loose change that I had collected that week. It must have weighed several pounds and been worth more than $10. She was extremely grateful for the gift. I asked the woman her name and she said, “Sonya”. I told Sonya that I was helping her out because God had helped me out. 

Those few moments we spent together were quite poignant. Sonya told me some intimate details of her life–that she had died once, but had been revived. She had prayed that God would keep her alive for the sake of her husband and 6 kids. Fortunately, her prayers were answered. I asked Sonya how I could pray for her and discovered that she lived with her sister, but her “jerk brother-in-law” wanted to kick her out. I prayed for God to help Sonya in her difficult circumstances and gave her a New York City Relief connection card

It turned out Sonya knew our organization from an outreach she had formerly frequented in the Bronx. She explained that she currently lived near our Harlem outreach site and would gladly visit The Relief Bus the following Saturday. 

Being loved can get you through almost anything and not feeling loved could be the worst hell you could ever experience. 

One Track Mind

As I left Sonya and made my way through Penn Station to find my train, the transit hub was overflowing with St. Patrick’s Day parade-goers all dressed in green and ready to party the night away. I didn’t give them a thought as I had only one thing on my mind. I couldn’t believe that I was finally on my way home. I couldn’t wait to see my family. Each evening, as I had tried desperately to fall asleep on the streets, subway or shelters, I had thought of my wife and children as I attempted to drift into unconsciousness. 

Unlike the many people who I had met struggling to survive on the streets, I had people to anchor my soul to who were thinking about me and praying for me. These thoughts brought comfort and helped me get through those trying, uncomfortable nights. I knew that many others weren’t so fortunate. It was an important lesson to remember–that being loved can get you through almost anything and not feeling loved could be the worst hell you could ever experience. This highlights how demonstrating compassion and friendship to people who are alone in their terrific hardships could be one of the most significant acts you ever perform. 

Prior to my street pilgrimage, this passage from the the book of Lamentations was conceptual to me, but through my encounters with the people I met struggling to survive each day, it became more real and tangible: 

“The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words. I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss. Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the LORD never ends! His mercies never cease.” Lamentations 3:19-22 NLT

Stay tuned for my next article in my Street Pilgrimage series titled, Home Sweet Home.

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