First Love

He was sitting in the alley on a large pack. He looked like the kind
of homeless guy that people often cross the street to avoid…
unshaven with a long scraggly beard, covered in black from traveling,
obviously hurting, not stable looking. I paused, even with all the
training and experience I have. Then I approached him.

His name is “Tom” and he’s 25. He travels from place to place by coal
train, moving on before he’s settled in, before he grows any roots.
The hurt I saw on his face, he told me, was from a girl… a bad
break-up they day before. He told me how he wanted to see her just
once more to end things differently between them.

He explained that the girl was something special, another travelling
kid, and this was the first girl in his life that he had told “I love
you.” And she had ripped his heart out. I listened and added little
assurances that what he was going through was rough but normal.

Still angry, he yelled, “Everybody is telling me to get over it…
it’ll be OK. But I don’t want to be OK. I want to hurt. I want to
feel. I want to be mad. That’s what I do. I’ll drink until I blackout.
I don’t care.” Contradicting himself more quietly, he went on, “I
don’t want to feel like this anymore. I don’t want to feel at all. I
want to numb out. I want to just drink and black out so I can forget.
Forget my whole life.”

Then he began to confess to me. “I used to stick needles in my arm and
shoot-up anything I could find. I get in fights and beat people. I
used to sell drugs. I used to rob and steal. I don’t want to do those
things any more. So I just drink and pass out.

“My mom is an alcoholic and so am I. She will stand there, hand
shaking with a drink in it, and tell me, ‘You can’t be an alcoholic.
You’re too young. I raised you better than that! You can’s just go and
be a screw-up.’ I hate her. Why did she ever even have me?

“And my dad. He left me when I was 8. And for what? He’s a pedophile
and would rather love some other kid than be my dad. Why did he ever
hook-up with my mom?”

I listened. And then I asked to speak. I assured him that it was OK to
hurt and be angry. It was simply OK. Some of the pain from the broken
romance would pass and he would probably love again, as hard as that
is to believe. I asked him about faith. He answered, “I’m spiritual.
But I’m not religious. I’m not Christian. I know there is a higher
power. We are created. I am provided for, but it’s not God or a man or
anything.” I assured him that was going to be OK for now.

Then I asked him if I could tell him something more. Something maybe
hard. He said, “Yes. I need to talk to somebody like you, somebody
with your feet on the ground. I don’t need to be handing out with
junkies tonight. Go ahead.”

“To feel the love that you felt with this girl, it makes you
vulnerable. I’m not saying that love is supposed to hurt, but I’m
acknowledging that when we get so close to someone in love that we’re
likely to take a few elbows that hurt. We may be hurt more by those we
love than any others in this world. But if it’s true love, we can
apologize, talk about the hurt, and heal.

“Now, here’s the hard part. Get ready.

“I believe this girl was unkind to you to say what she did. But I
think she may have spoken the truth to you. She told you things about
yourself that she saw, and it really hurt. But tonight you have
confessed to me that many of those things are true. And I think that
is why it hurts even more.

“You are feeling that now. But dude–get this–you ARE feeling! We
need to feel to be alive. We need to feel good and we sometimes have
to feel bad. You’re used to numbing out. You’re used to blacking out.
And you even wonder what it would be like to check out. That’s not
living… that’s not feeling. I think you’re hurting so bad because
someone close to you told you this truth in a way that it got past
your armor, got past your defenses, got into your chest and made you
feel. Am I on the right track?”

Tom looked up, both of us sitting on the ground in the alley with our
backs against the wall. “Yeah. It’s true. I don’t feel because it
hurts too much. I don’t feel because I’ve screwed up everything. I
don’t feel because there’s no reason to.”

“Tom, I want to pray together to that higher power you know exists. I
want to hold your hand, here in this alley and pray together. Would
that be OK?” He agreed.

“God… higher power that made Tom and me both. Tom is hurting, and
he’s hurting bad. I ask you to bring some relief. I ask you to bring
some healthy relief. You made Tom. You made him wonderfully. He’s a
beautiful person, but he has screwed up some things badly. He doesn’t
know what to do with them. I ask you to forgive him. I ask you to help
him forgive himself. I ask you to help him do something with all these
experiences.” Tears began to fall from his cheeks. He was weeping.

“God, I want you to let Tom feel. I want you to let him feel your
love. I want you to let him to feel the love that he has for this
woman… a first love for him in some ways. But God, I want Tom to
know that you loved him first, before any of this. And that you still
love him. And tonight God, right here in the alley, I pray that you
will let Tom experience another important love. I want you to help Tom
say, maybe for the first time in his life, ‘I love me!'”

Tears were coming down his cheeks and landing on our joined hands. I
asked Tom, “Can you say it? Can you say, ‘I love me?'” He shook his
head. But then he choked out, “I love me.” “That’s right, God. Tom is
lovely and is loved. You loved him first and still do!”

With Tom freed somewhat from his self-hatred, I began to ask him about
the future. What did he see? The answer surprised me. I think it
surprised Tom, but he had obviously thought about it all before but
had tucked these thoughts away and misplaced them. We went back to
prayer about his future: “Tom wants to keep traveling for a few more
years, God. But then he wants to settle down. I’m thanking you now
that you will provide a way for him to settle down. Tom wants to take
all that has happened to him and to begin to help people who are like
him, who turn to the street to find themselves. I thank you, God, for
all the people he’s going to help. Through you, God, it’s going to be
awesome. Maybe he’ll be a dad. Maybe he’ll be a foster dad. However
you let it happen, God, thank you for letting him turn all this hurt
into something good that helps people.”

Tom looked up at me, through the tears. He said, “I know it can
happen, but I just don’t know how to start.”

I asked Tom, “Can we do one more thing? Can we look at your heart?
Let’s stand up. You heart is right in there,” pointing to his chest,
“beating tonight… feeling tonight. But it’s suffocating, too. It’s
surrounded by all the crap you’ve done to try to protect it from
feeling. From feeling the hurt from your mother’s actions. From the
terrible fact that your father abandoned you. From the awful things
you’ve done to other people and to yourself. It’s like a huge sticky
tar ball completely surrounding your heart. But these tears,” pointing
to his cheeks, “are softening it. And these warm feelings… that’s
right, you’re feeling something good… check-in Tom and notice that!
These warm feeling are softening that tar ball.

“Let’s take some of that–right now– and get rid of it.” I mimed
grabbing some of it and throwing it on the ground. He began to grab
more and add it to the imagined pile on the ground. “Leaving it
behind. You don’t need that. Today is just the beginning but you need
to leave piles of stinking dark tar behind every chance you get. Every
time you can find someone safe to talk with, process some more of it
and leave it behind. That’s how you can find a way to settle down.
That’s how you can find a way, with God’s help, to turn all that has
happened to you into a strength that you will use to help others like

We finished up our talk and I prepared to say good-bye. He planned to
stay by himself that night, get a little money by begging, drink a
little (but not a lot), and then hop a train to San Antonio. I asked
him if he wanted a hug. He dropped his pack on the ground and gave me
a bear hug that I thought might suffocate me!

I don’t know if when I will see Tom again, although I’m sure I will
one day–even if only in heaven. For this young man is strong and
knows his creator. I’m confident that he feels the truth and will come
to understand the gospel message about his higher power. His speech
reminds me of Job, in a sense demanding an audience with his actions,
knowing instinctively that Jesus exists even if he hasn’t met his yet

I pray that Tom continues to find help to process the built-up anger,
guilt and contempt that he has for his life. I pray that God will
continue working a miracle in Tom’s life and transform it into one
that is fully healed and giving.

I pray that Tom is constantly reminded that he was loved first and
always by his creator. And that he comes to fully understand the he is
loved so much that God made a way for complete forgiveness and
healing. And I pray that Tom can even learn to see himself through the
eyes of his creator and continue to say, “Since you love me, I’ll
forgive myself and even love myself.”


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