“Why me, Lord?” he hopelessly begged. “I can’t do this anymore, I am so tired!”
These were the emotionally charged words of Thomas, a man I was lucky enough to meet this summer. Every possible phrase I could formulate seemed utterly inadequate, but I managed, along with tearing eyes, “Thomas, please don’t give up—if there is anything you do now, don’t give up.” He might have given up, but I have no way of knowing.
The first week of my summer was spent with days and evenings much like this, surrounded by the homeless on the streets of Philadelphia, as part of a mission trip through my church. It was one of the most humbling and rewarding experiences of my life, and it changed me. The focus of the trip was to interact with the homeless and to build our awareness of inner-city poverty there and in cities around the country.
I was definitely made aware.
Over the course of the week I met many people like Thomas and through conversations I learned about them and about myself. Beneath the obvious neglect and suffering, every individual I talked to had an amazing story, and each of them was willing to share. Many of the homeless do not have the social networks I take for granted. They can’t simply call up a friend or walk down the stairs to talk to a brother or sister. I never thought about their loneliness before my trip—I didn’t think about the homeless at all really—but now I understand that every one of them has a need to talk to someone and get his story out, even if it is to a complete stranger.
During the first day, before I started talking to the homeless, I felt completely out of place. I had a feeling that what I was there to do wouldn’t seem sincere to the homeless, no matter how hard I tried. I was entirely wrong; the thanks I received was overwhelming. It wasn’t primarily thanks for the food or water I handed out, but for the time I spent asking about their lives and honestly wanting to listen.
I did not look at Philadelphia from a tourist’s perspective that week and I won’t in the future. Typically when I would walk through a city I would see many homeless, but act as though they weren’t there—maybe toss a few coins and get on with my busy day. But what good are a few coins? I was probably endorsing a crippling cocaine addiction rather than contributing to a meal. The human interaction is possibly more important than that meal. I hope I helped Thomas to see that his life was worthwhile and maybe I helped him rethink suicide or his next alcohol binge. I’ll never know, but I do know that I have much more to appreciate in my life and much less to take for granted.
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