I had a weird but noteworthy experience that I didn’t write about 3 weeks ago. Today I’m going to share it because it has come to a more complete resolution. Perhaps I should not write about it, because it includes a negative image. I ask you to focus on the transformative potential of the story and not on the negative situation. And I ask you remember that this is one person out of 600 that I have met and ministered to this year alone….
About three weeks ago, on a Friday, I was doing my usual outreach on Guadalupe. I had sandwiches from a dear volunteer who always makes homemade bread, home roasted meats, and really good things for the kids. I had seen during the week already that there was an unusual number of kids on the street, so I anticipated seeing lots of people. I was a little nervous about doing a good job that day for some reason.
I love going to the “Drag.” It’s sort of like that old TV show, “Cheers. “It’s a place where everybody knows my name” and where we’re all glad to see one another. However, the “Drag” was different this Friday. It just seemed full of negative energy. There was a football game the next day and lots of college students were already drinking and partying. And there were lots of new travelling kids in town, which I think sometimes puts the “local” kids into a somewhat defensive posture. And something must have happened downtown which had driven a lot of older folks who don’t normally hang out on the Drag into my beat. These older folks are definitely not my ministry target, but I do treat them humanely and even take care of the older folks who frequent the Drag. I can name all these things that were wrong with Friday in retrospect, but all I knew that day was things weren’t right.
Thankfully, I started my outreach on the far end of the street. I ran into almost no one I knew well. My regular folks just weren’t around. Perhaps I should have taken a clue from that. I did meet lots of new and kind travelling kids. They loved getting the sandwiches and socks and getting an introduction to me. (And I’ve remained in contact with many of them for weeks as they check out Austin.)
However, when I got to the end of my route, a place I typically hang out for quite a while, things turned ugly. There were a number of people there but I didn’t know them. And they had been drinking heavily. They weren’t many of my ministry target folks in the crowd, although there were a few mixed in. One guy, “Mike,” didn’t like the taste of the homemade bread (and probably was suffering from other things that day, too) and spit it out. He called it poison and strew his food all over the sidewalk in a big scene. Me and others got onto him for making a big mess on the sidewalk, because it causes friction with the church who let us all sit there on their steps. Another guy took exception to my asking Mike to clean that up. He said, “You have no right to come here and judge him. You’re poisoning him in a different way. Poisoning him with judgement.” He, too, had been drinking a lot. I spent some time talking with this second person and ironed things out.
I sat there a while longer and finished talking one ministry client who had come by. I decided it was time to leave. I got up. Mike decided to take further exception to me. He said, “You sit here and make people kiss your ass to get a sandwich. Why don’t you just leave your stuff and go.” I was in the process of leaving, so I figured he’d be happy. However, I already had the bags of food and socks in my hands and planned to walk around a bit more to give the rest away.
He grabbed them and dumped them all over the sidewalk. He stomped on some of the boxes of cookies. He tore a Bible in half. He threw some apples. He made a huge mess.
Many people left, and some of the people watching scrambled to pick up everything and returned it to the bags. I supposed I should have left right away, also, but I didn’t want to leave all that litter everywhere. So I waited as they finished picking up. Then I took the bags to go. Mike grabbed hold of the bags, me with the handles and him with the other end. We went round in a circle a couple of times as he pulled them. He raised his fist to hit me. I let go and he went sprawling across the steps, bags in his lap. I just walked away at that point. Perhaps I should have walked already, but it had all happened so fast.
I now looked back over my shoulder to decide if I was walking away or running. Mike was still on the ground. Some regular ministry clients had just appeared from nowhere and come running around the corner. One was obviously in Mike’s face about what he had done. So I walked. I heard the sirens of police cars. I figured some passers by must have 911 on my behalf. I still don’t know if that was related or just coincidence.
I disappeared for a while to think. I reviewed that I had done and not done. I am trained to work with unstable and potentially dangerous people every day. I have skills to help them remain calm and in control, but obviously staying in control is their choice and responsibility. After reviewing, I concluded that I had done very little wrong, just one or two things I would chance if given the chance. I took little solace in that. I thought about Mike. He’s an older guy and he had too much to drink. From his perspective, he had reacted badly to someone (me), especially a Christian, doing relational ministry and would have preferred impersonal help or no help. I wondered what about his life and his circumstances caused him to act as he had. And now, I was quite sure, he had been beaten by people for attacking me. The chain of hurt and violence just seemed to much to bear.
After some time, I returned to the streets, still agitated. People had been looking for me. They ran up to me, “Are you OK? Did you get hurt?” I assured them I was shaken but fine and that the incident would not change my ministry. I overheard one vendors saying something about “turning the other cheek.” After letting these folks express concern for me a while longer, I went home. I was very thankful to God for his protection that day, for the protection of ministry clients, and for the concern of the street community who knows me.
That next week, my heart did race a little faster when I saw someone I didn’t know. I was still nervous even from the event. The next Friday in outreach, I was escorted by one of my clients. A tough client. One of the ones who had come around the corner. He didn’t call it escorting me, but I don’t know what else to call it. He had never hung out all day with me before. (And I took the opportunity to share the Gospel with him, of course.) He assured me that Mike would never raise his hand to me again. Naturally, I was sorry for what I knew had happened to Mike in retribution for his behavior. They call is “street justice.”
Another week passed. I saw Mike. Even though I knew we needed to reconcile for both our own good, I didn’t go to where he was. He seemed fine, but I just wasn’t ready to talk with him. I saw Mike again one evening a few days later. He actually asked me for spare change. He didn’t recognize me in the twilight or after drinking. I didn’t say anything.
This Friday while doing outreach, I was completely at ease again. I was with a group of about 8 kids in a vacant storefront, some new and some regular clients. We were having a good time talking about how they had fared through the storm the night before. Suddenly, Mike appeared out of nowhere and in my face! I wondered, “What now?”
Mike said, “I’m so sorry about what I did. I’ve been beaten twice for what I did because people have so much respect for you and what you do. I just didn’t know. I’m sorry.” I was very surprised and said the only thing I could thing of, “That’s OK. Thank you for telling me.” He went to sit at the back of the corner where we were.
Mike got up again and said, “I am very sorry. Do you forgive me?” I had taken some time to think this time. I said, “Of course. I really appreciate you telling me how you feel now. I made a couple of mistakes that night, too. I hope you’ll forgive me for that as well.” Mike didn’t seem convinced. He held out his arms, and asked again, “Do you forgive me? Can I give you a hug?” I answered by leaning toward him and giving him a big hug.
Mike still would not take anything from me that day in the way of food or help, but he did talk with me. I look forward to seeing him again. Perhaps he will one day understand the prodigal love of the Father and how he can turn all the hurt in his life over to Him.
P.S. I am rarely in danger or in fear, but personal safety is always a prayer request that I give to me prayer team. (Twice in 18 months have I ever felt in danger.) I have training in intervention and street safety, and I am constantly learning to trust my instincts more and more. However, this is a stark reminder that anyone who lives on the street also has the capacity for violence. No amount of training can put me in control. This is one reason I ask volunteers to never work alone with homeless. Always team up. Even now, please remember how I started this. This story is one of the redemptive potential of a relationship. It is not a story about all homelessness. Almost all the homeless young people I know are kind and respectful almost all the time.