Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Among my glaring character flaws: I’m terrible at keeping up with friends.

Matt and I made some close friends during our three days on the streets, and I want to do a better job than usual of not losing track of them. This post is about that.

Ernest, Dawn, Tommy, and John were our indispensable Sherpa guides. They showed us where to sleep, taught us how to walk and talk and argue, and introduced us to kind souls while steering us clear of the crooks and mouthwash drinkers.

I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when I’ve been more dependent on someone for safety. Maybe that’s why homeless people are often so choosy with their friends: Befriend the wrong person and you’re endangering yourself. Friendships among homeless people seem to be less based on common interests and more based on the idea that a person will protect and stick up for you, maybe even lay down his life for you.

I sat down with Tommy for dinner Monday night, and he got all emotional with me, talking about the serendipity of our paths having crossed and the firmness of his conviction that we would always be linked. It was the sort of conversation that men rarely share, and when we shook hands goodbye, I knew it was something sacred.

The next evening, I got a call from Ernest, who had me on speakerphone so I could hear Dawn as she thrashed him in a game of rummy.

Back on March 31, the day before the Winter Shelter closed, I gave the two of them a ride to the Greyhound station and sent them on their way with a bag full of sandwiches and apples and a calling card — all the things I thought my mom would have handed me. Ernest had secured jobs for both of them, along with a friend, in a traveling carnival based out of Indiana. As we pulled into the parking lot, someone was singing Leonard Cohen on the radio:

“Love is not a victory march;

It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”

It was a tough departure for Dawn, and while some of this had to do with the fact that she’d never left the state before, it was mainly because she was leaving her children behind.

Dawn’s got three kids, and she knows that no court will award her custody while she’s homeless. The plan is to save up her money until the carnival ends in October and then come back to collect her children. She said she hopes they’ll understand one day why she has to do this.

As for Tommy and John, they cleared out of their downtown sleeping spots once the Winter Shelter closed, hoping to avoid confrontations by setting up camp in the woods. So far so good, but tensions are high. John’s been talking about some bad blood among their group of friends, and Tommy, a recovering alcoholic, has decided he can’t be around his longtime friends who drink liquor every night.

Still, Tommy was in higher spirits Monday night than I’d ever seen him. He’d spent some considerable time sitting by the river alone, playing his guitar and watching the water pass, and he spoke euphorically about Heaven and the promise that all things will be made new. I could tell he’d been praying a lot, and he said he’d been praying for me.

Tommy talked plans: He wants to start a homeless Bible study, and he said he’s got around 25 people interested in it on either Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday nights. He asked me to see if any college ministries wanted to help out.

He told me that, once he finally gets things straight with Veterans Affairs and receives his five years’ worth of checks in arrears, he’ll put most of the money in the bank, buy some good boots and a tent, and hike the Appalachian Trail, living off the land and the kindness of strangers. Upon returning, he’ll find a place of his own and continue the job hunt.

I asked if I could tag along once again, and he said that would be fine.

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When he pointed the shotgun at my chest, I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes. I didn’t bargain with God for another chance at living. I didn’t fight; I didn’t run; I didn’t think at all.

Friday night was the first time I was ever held at gunpoint. It was also the first time someone tried to sell me cocaine. Both of these things happened within blocks of the University of South Carolina campus.

It had actually been a pleasant night up until about 1 a.m., when we faced death. Heading out for a sort of trial night on the streets, Matt and I had taken a long walk through town with backpack and sleeping bags in tow. It wasn’t as cold as it had been on previous nights, and we were bundled like children of overprotective parents. I wore five layers, if I recall correctly.

We saw the stark contrasts in different parts of our city, watching theme bars and banks give way to liquor stores and payday lenders. We tried our hand at dumpster diving, coming up with some bitter chocolate baking cups and a mostly-full peach-mango drink.

Early on, a man rode by on a bike near the corner of Harden and Gervais, slowing down with squeaky brakes to make a casual offer:

“Hey guys, I got weed, pills, and coke,” he said. “What’s good?”

We politely declined and headed on.

I’d picked out our sleeping area beforehand, and I thought we were safe there. It was a fairly well-lit park between an all-girls dorm and a busy intersection, and it had a gazebo that would keep us covered in case of rain or snow.

As we laid ourselves down on the park benches, three guys approached us on the path. I kept still and hoped they wouldn’t give us any trouble, figuring the worst we’d get was a heckling by some sons of Southern gentry.

When they were within feet of the gazebo, one of the guys said, “What you got?”

We quickly realized this meant they wanted our valuables, so we stood with our hands raised and complied. We told them we had nothing they’d want and offered our bags to be searched, and then they pulled out the guns: a pistol aimed at Matt and what looked like a sawed-off shotgun aimed at me.

From there, it was a blurred rush to go through my five layers of clothing and turn all my pockets inside out. They took what little we had to offer — pens, books, gloves, an apartment key — and threw them aside, thunking and tinkling off the gazebo ceiling and concrete floor.

When they were convinced that we really were worthless, the one with the shotgun gave me an open-palmed smack and pushed me onto the bench, and Matt got two pistol-whips on the back of his head.

And then they were gone, sprinting toward the Pickens Street gate and then off into the quiet Columbia night.

After jerkily searching through the shrubs to find my key, we hoofed it back to our apartment and called it a night. We phoned the police and stayed up ‘til 3:30 filling out paperwork and answering their questions.

We never got a good look at the three guys’ faces. We could tell they were black and roughly our age, but beyond that everything was obscured by black clothing and bandanas. They seemed jumpy, though more in an amateurish than a drug-addled way. They were nervous, maybe more than we were.

There’s a lot that can go wrong in the city. I know that. I just never pictured it happening within my comfort zone. We like to salve our fears by thinking that all violence, prostitution, and drug-dealing takes place in that far-off world of Other, the part of town that social workers call “troubled” and sorority girls call “sketchy.”

Last night, that mindset came tumbling down. There are no walls. The only thing separating the well-to-do undergrad from the ghetto-raised youth is a couple of city blocks.

What does this mean for me? Honestly, I’m less at ease, although I slept soundly once I was back in my bed. Maybe I’ll have a hard time revisiting that gazebo, which is where I used to stretch before my morning runs. Maybe — and I know this is wrong — I will view my African-American neighbors with suspicion for a while.

But Matt and I agree on one thing: We are undeterred from this homeless project. If anything, this was an appropriate introduction to our upcoming week on the streets. I hear homeless people telling me all the time about getting mugged where they sleep, and it always baffles me. If you’re going to hold people up, why go for the ones with almost no possessions?

I still don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know what it’s like to stare at a gun barrel in the middle of the night with nothing to defend myself and no one to call the cops for me.

I read in my Bible this morning how David said he was like a green tree in the house of God and how he called the Lord the upholder of his life. It’s hard to know where to find security, but I’m finding it in prayer right now.

If I ever meet those three men again, I like to think I will forgive them. Who knows what they’ve been through, and who knows how long they’ll waste away in prison if they’re caught?

As for us, we will be careful. During our homeless week, we’ll find our way into a shelter every night instead of sleeping outside. We will leave our keys with someone else. We will always keep our heads on pivots.

We will never take life for granted.

In the first chapters of the seminal Appalachian Trail travelogue A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson talks about the books he read leading up to his journey. Apparently, he mostly read about bears.

Following Bryson’s lead, I thought I’d share what I’ve been reading as I prepare for my homeless week. I just finished a book by Mike Yankoski called Under the Overpass (Multnomah Publishers, 2005). Mike did basically the same thing I’ll be doing, except that he was on the streets for five months in six different cities.

I took a few things away from it:

1. It’s best not to be alone out there. Mike’s a pretty big guy, but even he had a friend along for safety’s sake.

2. Panhandling is hit-and-miss, even when you play an instrument. I think this will be especially true in Columbia, which — despite the ever-so-inviting “Famously Hot” ad campaign — is by no means a tourist town.

3. For Christians, like Mike and me, there’s no excuse for not helping the homeless. He described several run-ins with churchgoing folks that raised that clever old question: How can you worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?

4. Very quickly, my life will become all about securing the bare necessities: food, water, shelter, a place to go to the bathroom, maybe a shower and a change of clothes. That seems obvious enough, but Mike writes about how the constant struggle to obtain those things redefined his dignity and self-respect.

Me reading Scratch Beginnings

Today, I started reading a book by Adam Shepard called Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream (HarperCollins, 2008). After graduating from college, the author decided to test out the idea that anyone can pull himself up from poverty with enough elbow grease. To do this, he took a train to Charleston, S.C., with $25 in his pocket and checked into a shelter.

He gave himself one year to get a car, an apartment, $2,500 in cash, and a reasonable chance of career advancement without using his degree or connections. In the introduction, he admits his optimism — he thought it could be done.

I tend to agree with him. On the other hand, I’ve met enough hard-working poor people to have my doubts. Most of the great rags-to-riches stories involve extraordinarily talented individuals — artists, politicians, salesmen, athletes. But what if you’ve got nothing and you’re ordinary? Do you still have a shot?

What do you think? Do you believe in what James Truslow Adams called “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement”?