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Life Lessons from the Street

When you think of homeless people, what are some of the things you think? Perhaps it’s that they are all drug users. Maybe they have an alcohol problem. Or it could even be that they are too lazy to do anything about their situation. Sit back and grab hold of something. The story I’m about to tell you is going to blast all of those stereotypes away! Let me start by explaining our ministry with Hands of Hope. This ministry is run by a woman named Joetta. Assisted by a cane, she ministers to the homeless not through a shelter, not through a soup kitchen, but she meets them right where they are; on the streets.

Affectionately known as ‘Ma’ by many of the homeless, Joetta leads groups to different locations where she knows homeless people ‘hang out’. Each group brings packed lunches of peanut butter and jelly, fruit and water. Groups also hand out toiletry kits with soap, shampoo, and sometimes a pair of socks and underwear. Most of the people are more than happy to spend some time sitting and talking with you. Some would rather not be bothered. If you’re fortunate, they’ll open up about their story. The ministry is not focused on treating the homeless like a zoo, however, where people come just to observe, learn and leave. The hope is that we will sit down with the people and just talk (or in most cases, listen!) for a while.

Allow me to introduce my new friend Ali. (Yes, like the famous boxer!) Try and imagine this scene. We’re just outside of Center City, so the area is fairly busy and clean. We’re at an area where three streets intersect. A wall of a juvenile delinquency center provides shelter for about half a dozen people. Ali was one of these people, and I sat down next to where he was camped. I offered him the lunch and the toiletry kit soon after introducing myself. (In retrospect, I wish I would have held on to them longer or not even had them to give because it probably appeared as though it was the only reason I was there!) I’m not sure how the conversation got started, but soon I was finding out more and more about Ali.

He told me to guess how old he was. I view this as a very dangerous question regardless of who I’m talking with, so I cautiously decided to go with mid-40s. He cocked his head back and laughed. He took his hat off and said, ‘I’m 53 years old’. I wouldn’t be complaining if I was his age and looked like he did. He began to tell me about the homeless in the area. Some people did fit into the stereotypes. Ali said he was not on drugs nor did he drink. As the conversation went on and on, I believed this more and more. He said that many people lose their minds out on the street. He knew of one man who was asking for a light for a cigarette for his friend. When Ali took a bit too long to get it out, the man quieted his friend and told him to be patient. What makes this situation crazy? Ali could only actually see one of them.

I asked him what a normal day was for him. He said he gets up around 4 in the morning, and goes to the subway to report for his job. He sells the newspaper down there for a while. He then goes to one of the local churches and showers, changes his clothes, and gets ready for the day. One thing Ali was very adamant about was the fact that he was no different than most people walking the streets. He showers, keeps his head shaved, has a job, and just takes care of himself. Ali said that there are some people he knows about that just do not take care of themselves whatsoever. He doesn’t understand how they can’t smell themselves. He joked that one man always had a frown on his face, and that it must be because he constantly smells himself and can’t escape it! After preparing for his day, he goes to the library and reads. On certain days in the paper, he can find free movie passes for screenings, and so he takes advantage of them. (He was talking to me about the most recent Harold and Kumar movie.)

Ali has a fantastic sense of humor, something which I’m sure prevents him from making friends with invisible people. I asked him if there was any trouble around here for him. He told me that sometimes people will come around and throw things at them and run away, but it’s nothing too severe. He takes it in stride and even finds reason to joke about it. One time in particular, a bunch of kids ran up and threw hoagie rolls at him. He caught one, turned to the kid and asked ,’Well, are you going to throw the meat and cheese? Where’s the meat and cheese?!’ The kid thought it was humorous and ran off with his friends. I marveled at the fact that he could make light of such a degrading thing.

Ali didn’t go too deeply into how he became homeless. He has no kids and no wife that he talked about. He said that he had just made a few bad decisions and temporarily found himself where he is now. One thing just snowballed into another and it was too much at once. I asked if I could pray with him, and he agreed. We joined hands and I thanked God for providing me with Ali’s example and the fact that he was an example for others on the streets as well.

After rejoining the group, I came to learn a few more things about Ali that I didn’t know before I talked with him. First, he’s a Muslim. That blew my mind as he openly allowed me to pray over and with him without showing any contempt. Secondly, he looked out for and cared for the girl that was living next to him. She was a drug addict, but Ali just did what he could to make sure she was okay. Not once did that fact come up in our conversation. He was not boastful, nor did he include it as part of his daily routine. I also learned that the building they were propped up against was being torn down for a new art museum. Who knows how long they will be able to live there. Ali never mentioned that either. He was content with what he had today and not worried about tomorrow. I learned about as much about his character with these three facts as I did by talking with him. There are good people living on the streets. Many have just hit rock bottom in their lives and are trying to find a way out. Not all homeless are disgruntled. (I hadn’t laughed as much as I did with Ali since I arrived in Philly!) It was so encouraging to see that God provides for people even when materialistically, it would suggest otherwise. Jesus came and died for all sinners. That includes those who are Muslim, or of any other religion. His openness to allow me to pray with him humbled me into thinking how many times I’ve had a closed mind and therefore closed the door to witness or learn from another.

I mentioned to Ali that the trees around him were probably awesome in the autumn with all of the changing colors. He said, ‘Yeah, they sure are. I don’t intend to be around here next autumn to see them though.’ Ali has a plan. He doesn’t intend on being homeless for much longer. I know people who live under a roof whose lives are nowhere near as organized and put together as Ali’s. All the praise goes to God, who uses people like Ali to remind us to be open to His will, not to boast in our works done for others, and to be worry free, knowing that God will provide for tomorrow.

-Tim, CSM Philly City Host Summer 2008