A twenty-something man sits on the ground next to a bus stop reading a worn, paperback book. His skin is pale and his hair a light shade of brown, stopping just below his shoulders. It’s a cold day in Chicago. He wears a thick, over-sized, tan coat, a winter hat, and gloves with holes at the end of each finger. He is baby-faced, attractive and homeless.
His name is Patrick. I met him on a recent business trip.
I nearly walked by him. Five minutes earlier I had given my restaurant leftovers, a bottle of water, a banana, and $2 cash to an older, African-American gentlemen panhandling near my hotel. Ben was his name and he had kind eyes.
When I saw another person with a cardboard sign, I didn’t know what I could offer. I stopped anyway and offered him a banana and $2 cash. His eyes lit up and he devoured the banana like he hadn’t eaten in days.
He told me he’s been staying in an abandoned building with four other people, which he said made it safer than staying somewhere alone. He communicated well and looked directly in my eyes as he spoke. He seemed so…normal.
I hate that word, but Patrick is not who I picture when I think of the homeless in America. He is too articulate. Too good-looking. Too young. He told me he has been homeless on and off for the last six years. He didn’t have identification, but he knows a place that will help him get some. I asked him if he had a plan.
“Yes, I’m going to shovel snow to earn some cash, but we haven’t had a good snowfall yet.”
I found out he just got out of prison only a couple of months ago. His family is from California, but he hasn’t seen them in a while. Then he asked me questions I haven’t stopped thinking about.
“Why are you helping me? Why did you stop? Do you have a friend or family member who is on the street?”
He asked it politely, innocently. It caught me off guard. I thought about it for a few seconds, but struggled to articulate an answer.
Then I admitted to myself that there are plenty of times I don’t stop. I thought back on the last few months of my life. I thought again about Nish Weiseth’s book Speak and how it challenged all the excuses I made for not stopping.
Finally, I answered him honestly. “I don’t know. There’s a lot of reasons I guess. Because it’s easy. It’s easy to help someone. It’s easy to say hello. I can’t do a lot, but I can do something.”
“I like that,” he said with a smile.
But I wasn’t quite satisfied with my answer. I knew I should have mentioned God. My faith is the best thing in my life, but was I helping him because of it? Maybe, but it wasn’t the main reason.
The main reason I helped him, why I help anyone, is because it could have been me. I could have lived a life that took a path that led me to that moment, shivering on a sidewalk in Chicago with a cardboard sign.
I helped him because I have empathy. In fact, I often imagine myself living the lives of others. I imagine what it would feel like to go through what they go through and then I want desperately to take away any pain they may feel. Because I am them and they are me.
I did end up mentioning God before I walked back to my warm hotel for the night. I told him that I’m a Christian and that I know God loves me and that God loves him too.
He told me he went to church once a long time ago and he liked how it felt. I said “I do too.”
I wanted to say more about Jesus, but I also wanted him to know that I was talking to him because he was important, not because I had an agenda.
Then he asked me if I was a hugger and I said “yes.”
He asked if he could give me a hug and I said “yes.” Not to brag, but I’m a good hugger.
It would be a shame not to share that gift with the world. Actually, the truth is, I love hugs. They are timeless and universal and transcend everything that might divide us. They are the easiest way to love your neighbor.
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