Last Sunday, I befriended a homeless man who had wandered into our church service. I thought about blogging about him, but decided not to. Frankly, I’m not sure the story has an ending yet. But it got me thinking about something that happened to me twenty years ago, when I was a little younger and still learning what ministry was all about. True story.
It was a typical Sacramento fall morning—one of those days when a cold, white fog hangs in the air like a wet blanket. I had been on staff at Oak Hills Church for only about a year. I was young, well-intentioned, naïve—and quite busy doing something I’m sure I thought was important at the time. That’s when he walked in.
He was about six foot two or so. Tall, thin, wearing dirty, baggy clothes, bundled in a stained denim jacket and carrying an Army duffle bag—a young black man with scraggly hair and a tired, broken-down look on his face. He looked like a transient. A bum.
As he walked in, I immediately, subconsciously put myself on the defensive. Who was this guy? Why was he here? What were his intentions?
Despite my suspicions, he greeted me politely, and then he asked me whether the church had an extra Bible he could have. As I watched him fumble for the words, I noticed something in his eyes. A tiredness. A sadness. A searching. So we started to talk.
He told me he was living behind one of the grocery stores in town, eating the stale doughnuts that the bakery would toss out. He didn’t have a place to go, and he had no one to go with. We talked briefly, and I gave him a Bible. And then, for reasons that I couldn’t understand at that time, I felt the urge to do something more. So I took out a pen and scrawled my home phone number on the back of a business card, and told him that if he needed help, to call me.
As he left, I said two prayers. First, a prayer for his protection and safety. And second, a prayer to God that he wouldn’t actually call. “Please God,” I thought. “Don’t let him call me. You have no idea how busy I am right now.”
Since that time, I’ve learned never to pray prayers like that.
Sure enough, that evening, I received his phone call, wondering whether he could stay overnight. As I drove over to the grocery store to get him, I thought to myself, What are you getting yourself into? This guy could stab me, rob me, throw me in the river, steal my stuff, hurt my kids. But there was something about this that I could not ignore: You see, somehow, I felt that God was in this somehow. This was something God wanted me to do. And so I picked him up and brought this man into my house, to meet my wife, to see my children, to eat my food, to sleep under my roof.
I will always be thankful that I have a wife who trusts me in these things, because I know Deb was as unsure as I was as to how this was going to pan out. But she and I fed him, and allowed him to take a long hot bath, and gave him a place to sleep, and washed his clothes.
That night, we listened to his story, helped him through his tears, prayed with him. And some time that night, this faceless transient became a person to me.
John (not his real name) was a professional boxer at the tail end of his career. At one time, he was ranked as high as number 7 in the WBA standings, but now time was starting to catch up to him. He was the son of devoted Seventh Day Adventists, and his father was friends with George Foreman, and had actually fought Muhammad Ali. John was caught up in a web of bad relationships with people who were heavily into drugs, and he had a bad marriage and three children. Somewhere, through all of the incredibly bad luck he was having, and the incredibly bad life decisions he was making, he decided to head out into the streets. He ended up at our church by chance. He simply wasn’t paying attention to where he was walking.
As I look back at it now, I don’t know exactly what God’s plan was, but I know that He was up to something. I could tell that God was tugging at John hard, tugging at him to make some major changes in his life. But what I didn’t see was how God was changing me. And He was. Changing my perspective, forcing me to see people the way He sees people—with kindness and goodness and mercy and love.
Well, after a week or so of giving John rides and buying him some clothes and new boots and just trying to be his friend, he ended up calling his parents, and re-establishing his relationship with them. He walked away from the bad relationships with his druggie friends. And he got a job as a sparring partner in Las Vegas. We even visited his family and hometown church, and our children played with his children at his parents’ home. Some years later, I got a phone call from him, and he told me he had his own business as an auto detailer in Vegas. You see, somewhere through all of this, John had become…my friend.
There is an irony here that does not escape me. You see, at the time, I was doing so much for the Kingdom of God that I didn’t see the Kingdom right in front of me. I was so busy doing God’s work, that I wasn’t being one of God’s children. But here was a guy who needed someone to be Jesus to Him. And God wanted to use me. God wanted me to invite this stranger into my house, into my life. And in the God-ordained intersection of our two lives, neither his life nor mine would ever be the same.
A number of year’s after I had lost contact with John, I received a clipped-out newspaper article in the mail. It was a story about a tall, thin, light featherweight boxer who was out taking a morning jog. According to the article, he saw smoke pouring out of a house. So he ran to the burning house, knocked in a window, and saved the family inside. It was my friend, John. The guy I had picked up years ago, and invited into my life. The guy who was at one time, very far away from God. But by God’s good grace, he had come back home.
Now, I’ve never saved anyone from a burning building. But I think about the fact that John might not have been there to save those people if I had not been there for him.
I’m no hero like John. But I am very grateful that God decided to share his unconditional love to John through me and through my family.
[Note: This story was originally published in True: Real Stories About God (Youth Specialties/Zondervan 2003) by Irene Dunlap]