Most of my adult life I've had a heart for the homeless. At different times, I was more or less generous toward them.
From 1994 to 1998 I lived in the Washington, DC area. During that time, I felt compelled to give generously to any homeless person who asked me for help. So much so, that when asked for help, I would literally empty all the money from my wallet for whomever was asking. It didn't matter if I had $2 dollars, $20 dollars or $120 dollars.
I believe Jesus has a special place in His heart for the poor, needy and homeless. There are many places throughout the Bible that God talks about lending to the poor in His name. During my 4 year stay in the Washington, DC area, I never missed the money I gave away to the homeless. Never.
But later, I started becoming stingy and judgmental toward the homeless. When I passed beggars, I started thinking, they are only going to use my money to get drunk or high. I totally forgot where the Bible says, "Give the poor strong drink, so they may forget their troubles." With this mentality I gave less and less, until I stopped giving at all.
For years my heart became cold toward those less fortunate than me. Sadly, I judged the homeless harshly. I tightened my grip, on money. Or maybe it was the other way around, perhaps money had tightened it's grip on me?
Slowly thru my wife Yvonne's generosity toward the poor and homeless, God began to soften up my heart. Occasionally, I started giving again, but I was still pretty biased and still pretty stingy.
For me, this was a strange dilemma. Anyone who knows me relatively well, knows that I am a very caring person. I will often talk to friends, family, my students, or complete strangers who I sense are in deep pain and/or in need to talk. So, how could such a caring, compassionate soul like me, also be a stingy, judgmental asshole at the same time?
Jesus says, "The good work I began in you, I will be faithful to complete it." Jesus starts and finishes the good work in us. He is so kind and patient with us. I think if we tried to face all our dysfunctional issues at the same time, we would literally go insane. Thank God, this is not the way He does things. Sometimes, it takes years for Him to reveal our personality defects to us. Sometimes we have conflicting perspectives or opinions about ourselves, about others, and about God. Sometimes though, things can progress pretty quick.
Summer of 2017, I began going thru a personal crisis, worst than anything I've ever encountered before. Someone close deeply hurt me. I didn't know how I would get thru this tragedy? Soon, I looked back at my life and confidently knew God had been with me throughout my entire life. He had been with me thru the best, and the absolute worst times. But God had always been by my side and had always gotten me thru things. I realized this time would be no different. He would get me thru this time as well.
Within a few days, I was able to sincerely pray for the same person who had hurt me so deeply. I was able to let it go. I was able to forgive them, even though my offender had not asked for forgiveness, nor even shown any sense of guilt or remorse.
Within a week, I was praying about and letting go of hate and anger. I started thinking about other people I hated or was still holding grudges against, going back years. God was showing me that as justified as we sometimes feel, none of us have a right to hate anyone. God created us all. We (the entire human race) are all brothers and sisters. We are all God's children. Watching the movie, "The Shack" (at the recommendation of a close friend), this idea really hit home for me.
Additionally, as I considered Christ's final moments on the cross, when He prays, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing." It hit me pretty hard, that I don't have the right to hate anyone. That like Jesus, I need to let things go and forgive others regardless of what they have done to me, or ever will do to me. Jesus says, "Pray for your enemies. Pray for those who hurt you and spitefully use you."
Then my mind turned to where Jesus says, "Just as you've done unto the least of these, it's as though you've done it unto me." I asked myself who were "the least" in Jesus day? It was the poor and the sick of Jesus time. Then I asked myself, who are "the least" today? In essence, it's the same group of people. And I'd add, that on today's list, the homeless are at the very top of that list. To be poor and sick is one thing, but to be homeless has got to be one of the worst places a person could ever find themselves at.
In Jesus' day, the poor, the sick, the beggars were labeled as "unclean" by the culture of their time. People would rarely look at them, even rarer help them, but by no means would they speak to them or touch them. To experience this level of isolation and indifference, I imagine it would make one feel invisible, worthless, unloved, despised and even hated.
Today, it's virtually the same. When we encounter a homeless person, most of us won't look at them, especially in the eye. We usually won't talk to them, unless to say, "Sorry, I don't have any change." If we do help them, it's usually coins or only a few dollars, not usually a larger bill, like a ten, twenty, fifty or hundred dollar bill. We won't touch them and certainly will not hug them! That's unthinkable!
Some weeks before, I had a pivotal experience one afternoon. I needed to run to Smart & Final to pick up somethings to make lunch for my sons (Jordan age 9 and Taylor age 6). It was a cool day, so I left my kids in our van with the windows down and proceeded to go inside the store.
Standing to the left of the entrance was a homeless woman, I've seen many times before. Later, I would discover her name was Cindy. It's not the first time I've seen her around town. I've never helped Cindy before or spoken to her. Whenever I saw her, she was standing upright, supporting herself with a walker, swaying side to side, with a pleasant smile on her rosy, red face. Seeing this, I always assumed she was so drunk that she could hardly stand up.
This day was no different, except for one significant detail. God was gently pulling on my heartstrings, nudging me to give Cindy something. I passed her going inside and hardened my heart. I told God stubbornly, "No!"
Once inside the store, I quickly gathered the few items I needed. In line to pay, I realized I accidentally left my wallet at home, outside of my satchel (fancy way of saying "man's bag"). So, I left my groceries there, and proceeded to return to my car.
On my way to the van, I had to pass Cindy again, now for the second time. Like the time before, God was again gently urging me to give her something (even though technically my wallet was back at home and I didn't even have any money on me). I've found over the years that God has a great sense of humor! As I passed Cindy for the second time, I told God, "No way!"
I went home, got my wallet and returned to the store. Again on my way into the store, God was impressing me to help Cindy out. I had plenty of cash in my wallet. But I told God, "No! It's my money! No! No! No!"
I paid for my purchases. I passed Cindy now for a fourth and final time. Oh course, you guessed it, God is so much more patient than I am stubborn. He again told me to help Cindy. I know what you're thinking, that I finally gave in to God, right? Wrong! I wish that had been the case, but sadly it wasn't. I walked right past Cindy, this time without even looking at her. In my heart, I told God, "No Fing way!"
As soon as I got into the car, my son Jordan says, "Dad, you see that homeless lady over there? While you were inside, I got whatever change I could find in the car, then I went over there and gave it to her." Wow! My 9 year old son was clearly listening more closely to the voice of God, than I was. I praised him for his act of compassion. Then I drove home and made lunch for the kids and myself.
God is so patient and lovingly persistent in His pursuit of getting our attention and our hearts! Thank God!
A few days later, during my morning worship, I finally surrendered to God on this matter. I'm so stubborn sometimes! I promised God the next time I saw Cindy, I would help her out.
However, before I would see her again, God would give me an inspired idea. I questioned myself, what could potentially impact a homeless person unlike anything else? Soon, I came up with the idea for Hugs4Homeless.
Within about ten days, I encountered Cindy again. This time, I walked right up to her, smiled while looking her in the eye, handed her a folded up $20 dollar bill, hiding the denomination of the currency. Then I asked Cindy if I could give her a hug? She smiled, nodding "yes". As I put my arms around her, she leaned into me and rested her head on my chest. She started repeating, "God bless you." My response was, "God bless you."
We stood there hugging in front of Smart & Final for more than 5 minutes. It was a really beautiful thing. I noticed an interesting phenomenon happening as a result. As I hugged Cindy, it drew the attention of other customers walking in and out of the store in a very positive way. People came up to us and seemed to give her more money than usual. Some gave change. Others gave currency. But in the few minutes I stood there hugging her, it really seemed like we had people crowding around us, being more generous than usual. I'm sure it was probably only 4 or 5 people, but it was noticeable.
As I returned to my car, I looked back where Cindy was standing, her face was beaming with a huge smile, she kept waving to me. I smiled and waved back. I felt tremendously happy! I also felt slightly ashamed at how stubborn I had been. God was trying so hard to give me a gift, meant to bless me and others, as I gave hugs and hope, to the hopeless and homeless.
Cindy would also be my 2nd & 3rd experience hugging a homeless person.
The 2nd time I approached her, I gave her $20 cash, asked to hug her again, asked her name & told her about the idea behind Hugs4Homeless, and her role in the whole thing.
During the whole time I spoke to Cindy, we hugged each other. She was really happy to see me again, to be hugged, and later asked me to pray for her, which of course, I did cheerfully. After the prayer, we were both crying.
The 3rd time I saw Cindy, I was going into Smart & Final to buy bottles of water, to freeze and hand out the next day when my son Jordan (age 9), and a former student of mine JC was coming with me to start Hugs4Homeless as a small group. I went over to Cindy, gave her a brief hug, and told her, "I'd hit her up, when I came out." Meaning I would give her something when I exited the store.
Upon exiting the store a few minutes later, I offered Cindy a bottle of water, apologizing that it wasn't cold. She gladly accepted it. I gave her $20, another hug, shared the plans to go out the next day to start small scale Hugs4Homeless. She was really excited to hear that I was already expanding the idea that started with her. She said, "It's a wonderful thing you are doing for the homeless. It's such a simple thing, but for most of us, it's huge!"
When I returned to the car, I encouraged my son Jordan to go give Cindy a hug. He sprang up and out of the car, ran over to her, and gave her a big hug. Cindy's smile grew even bigger.
I will never forget Cindy, and how God used her to soften my heart toward the homeless. My sincere prayer is that Hugs4Homeless will grow into a global movement to give love and hope to the hopeless and the homeless. I will however, leave those kinds of details in God's capable hands.