My knees were shivering and my hands were trying to keep warm in my pockets as I wiped tears away from my eyes with my mustard yellow scarf. We were standing together in the empty parking lot of a college whose students had long gone home. “I don’t want to leave just yet, he might still come. Can we just pray for him and wait a few more minutes? I know that feels stupid. I don’t know what else to do.”
I had first encountered him several months ago at the restaurant I worked at. He came in with an elderly woman who obviously did not know him but wanted to help him out. She bought him a few tacos and before she left, with tears in her eyes, she told me to be kind to him. I meandered over to talk to him while he shyly ate his food. “Are you from Tampa?” I asked, not knowing what else to say and feeling so aware of how loud I sounded in the small and empty restaurant. He looked at me with sad, deep brown eyes. His eyes were so familiar to my heart. My precious nephew has looked at me a million times before with eyes so similar. He looked so young – certainly not as old as I was. He shook his head no. I asked a few more questions and he politely answered as he ate. He asked me if the place where I worked was hiring but because he had several tattoos on his face, I knew that there was no way he would ever be hired by the uppity and judgmental management I worked for. He thanked me for the food and left. And while watching him go, I cried. Because I didn’t know a single bit of his story yet my heart still felt the weight of it. Because Christ called me to love those in need and I didn’t know how to.
A few weeks ago we were out to celebrate. Timothy was offered a job we had been praying for for a long time and margaritas with friends seemed the most perfect way to cap off a day of exciting news. He and I both had a very hard season of hunting for jobs and feeling like “less thans”, and within the same week our God brought us to beautifully open doors. An honor we truly do not deserve. We were nearly to the restaurant.
We had just gotten off the highway and were stopped at a light that almost always included a homeless man at the corner with a sign. Usually it’s awkward and sad but forgettable as soon as the light turns green. But tonight, when I glanced over, I saw a pair of familiar eyes. “It’s him!” I yelled as we drove away. It was that sweet boy. That sweet, young, weighed down boy that I had met months earlier. We drove around the block, parked on a bumpy brick street, and walked over to him. He remembered me nearly instantly and I felt more humbled than I have ever felt in my life. We told him that we didn’t have anything with us, and we had to be somewhere in just a few minutes, but we wanted very much to buy him dinner. We made plans to meet him back in the same spot in two hours.
We hoped to bring him to a shelter and we knew we needed more room than Timothy’s tiny kia. A kind and creative and wonderful friend who had been at dinner with us agreed before the question was even out of my mouth to come with us.
He didn’t come. And he didn’t come. Over and over I asked God for wisdom. Do we dare leave and miss him? Maybe someone else helped him out and took him to a shelter? He had told us that he slept in the park so any kind of shelter, especially on a cold evening, would be such a blessing. I didn’t know what to do.
So we prayed. We bowed our heads and we asked God to reveal Himself so fully to this man He created and loves so deeply. This man who has infinite value, this man who is in no way lesser than us. We asked God to stir in us, to give us divine insight to know what to do.
I felt so small and entirely helpless.
I felt angry at the pastor whose phone number we had been given as someone who may be able to help. He told us that “they were all crooks” and to not waste our time. I felt disappointed in myself for not knowing of safe and loving homeless shelters in the city I live in.
I felt thankful for the men standing on either side of me. On the left, a dear friend who offered to help us with no questions asked. On the right, my sweet Timothy. Men who prayed alongside me and who cared that I was cold.
I kept my eyes opened as we prayed, every so often scanning the sidewalks, hoping that he had just been late. I looked down at our feet and recalled how I had imagined this night playing out: there would be laughter, salted rim margarita glasses, a blatant ignoring of the clock growing later. I was so suddenly overwhelmed with the sense that nothing I have is mine.
Nothing in my life was my doing. The new job that I am so excited to have? I didn’t deserve it any more than this boy deserves such a job. And you don’t either. Nothing we have is truly ours and nothing we have gives us more value than the people who are sleeping in the park.
I started @choosetampa because I believe in this city. I believe in the people and the creativity and the vibrancy. And I very much believe in the brokenness that is held within our city walls. We must be kind to one another. We must love and give and build.
Our circle dissipated and our cars were started with heavy hearts. We pulled out of the parking lot to head to the homes we all felt very unworthy of having when I saw him. Walking down the street with sad and heavy and familiar eyes.