It used to be one of my regular rituals, but it had been a while since I had been to the parks with a bag of burgers, so when the urge hit me today it was with a pleasant joy that I jumped in my truck and headed into the inner city where most of the homeless congregate. I drove those miles with the songs on a Darlene Zschech CD lifting and inspiring my heart as we praised God together. Downtown, I pulled through a Burger King drive thru’ and got the usual response that follows my ordering 30 Whoppers, “Could you pull forward please?” where the manager steps to the window, looks me over and asks, “Did you say 30 Whoppers???”
“Right away sir” he snaps and scurries away. (Better than the dingy girl that looked me straight in the eye last time when I had come to the counter obviously alone and asked me, “Will those be for here or to go?” “30 Whoppers? No, I think that I’ll eat them here.” I responded, to which she just spluttered and explained that she was supposed to ask.)
So, with a big bag of burgers and a knapsack full of cold bottles of water, I pulled in to the parking lot near the park, paused to pray for a few minutes, and began my adventure. It’s really very simple, but also very intriguing to me, I just walk along the sidewalk stopping beside each person who looks like no one in the world cares whether he exists, look him in the eye (if he will look me in the eyes) and ask simply, “Burger?” as I reach into the bag and extend a hamburger. Sometimes the hand extended is tentative, sometimes it nearly grabs the burger from my hand. As I hand the person a bottle of water, I just say, “May God bless you.” Almost always, I receive back, “And God bless you too!” or just “Thank you” or “You are so kind.” For those who stand there and look at me, I just reach out and touch them for a moment on the arm or the shoulder while looking in their eyes then smile and go on down the sidewalk. Occasionally, as happened today, after I had been observed from a distance, several men and a lady got up from under a tree some distance away and came and formed a sort of line anticipating a meal. Two of the men shook my hand when they thanked me and the lady stood holding her burger for the longest time and just watched me as I continued on across the park.
I never knew a single name, had not seen them before and might never see them again, yet each face that I studied I would ask myself what God saw when he looked into that face? He knew their names and their stories. He knew whether they were bums or unfortunate destitute individuals. One thing of which I am certain; God never lumps them into a group and generalizes about them! Each one is an individual whom He knows and loves and for whom He died! Can they be less to me?
Today I will remember for a while, for God blessed me richly this day. I had seen the lady with the wild strawberry blonde mane moving about the area. She approached every woman walking in the park – only the women – and asked them something. Each time, they shook their heads and kept walking. She was sitting on a curb sobbing when I got near her, my bag nearly empty. I stopped, standing near her, and asked, “Burger?” She looked up at me with a bewildered expression and I was startled as I looked into her face. Her skin was smooth and her eyes the brightest, clearest blue though a bit puffy from crying; no signs of dissipation, no sun and wind weathered leathery skin, no sores from neglect or disease, no bruises or needle tracks on her bare arms. With sudden realization she saw the burger and snatched it from me, unwrapped it in an instant and just inhaled it – it was gone. Even as she took the bottle of water, her face disappeared again as her head dropped into her lap and again her body was wracked with the deep sobs. I moved away a bit and sat down on the curb, my eyes focusing for a moment on the evidence of the quality of life on the street that filled the gutter and my mind turned to a contemplation of what it must be like to live out here. I sat there silently for nearly a half hour until she looked up at me. I extended the last burger with a question on my face and her eyes and brows asked “really?” and smiling, I tossed it the few feet to her.
“Thank you. I’m Julie.” she said as she unwrapped it and began to eat in a normal manner, savoring the taste. It was important to her that I see her as a person, not just a lump of flesh on the curb.
“You don’t smoke, do you?”
I shook my head and shrugged. She shrugged.
As she took a sip of the water, I asked, “Is there any way I can help?”
“No” was the quick response, and then, thanking me again, she said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I understand.” I assured her, “Sometimes I haven’t been able to talk about it either.” and my mind replayed times in my life when I thought everything was coming apart and wondered whether I would survive.
Then suddenly, but not surprisingly, the dam burst open and she began spilling her story. Two weeks ago she had been diagnosed with bone cancer. Her “significant other” of 12 years apparently decided that he didn’t want to deal with her problem as she had come home on Thursday afternoon and found him with another woman in their bed. Hurting, she flew apart and began to holler and cry. He had snatched her purse and key ring away and shoved her out the door of their nice home and slammed the door. Later that day he had carried her clothing out to the alley and dumped everything in the dumpster. He had smashed her furniture and photos and art work and dumped it all. She had salvaged some of her clothes and wrapped them in a blanket that she found. This was Sunday and for three days she had been on the street with no food, no identity, no money, no way to bathe and no solutions in sight. On Saturday her large bundle of clothing had been stolen while she went into the filthy restroom at the park. She no longer had insurance as she had quit her job in R&D at a large aerospace firm here a year before because they were doing so well that her “significant other” had just wanted her to stay home and be a housewife, and she had just discovered since getting sick that his company insurance didn’t cover her. She was awaiting the processing of her Social Security claim to be able to start any treatments. Meanwhile, she was thinking that life wasn’t worth living and trying to figure out how to end it that night in the park. As my mind was running through a list of Christian ladies that I could call to provide some shelter and comfort for Julie, she finished her story and drifted into silence.
We sat for several minutes before she said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have dumped all that on you.”
With a smile of inspiration and remembering Don’s face as he spoke about the family of God this morning, I said, “Just this morning our pastor observed that when you share your joy it is doubled, but when you share your problems they are halved.” I saw the first smile that I had seen on Julie’s face. From that point, our conversation was quiet and slow and brief.
“Where do they live?”
“Think of going there?”
“I don’t want to be a burden.”
“Anywhere else? Anyone?”
“My mother lives in Tucson.”
“She would let me live with her even though she was upset at me for being with…”
“I can’t get there.”
“To Tucson? That’s not far.”
“It costs sixteen bucks for a bus ticket.”
“Does the bus run on Sunday evenings?”
She just stared at me as I stood up. Then she stood up and began crying again, but differently, “Jack, you’re not real are you? You’re a guardian angel.”
“No” I smiled. I’m just a Christian who has been helped by others when I was down.
I opened the door for her and we got in my truck and drove to the bus station. I had to buy the ticket as she had no I.D. She did ask for $4; one to call a friend for a ride when she got to Tucson, and $3 to get a pack of cigarettes. I know, I know, but this wasn’t the time for that lecture. I gave her a few dollars more in case she needed to eat again and just so her pocket wouldn’t be empty.
“Write down your name and address and when I get a job, I’ll pay you back.” she insisted.
“No. When you get on your feet, find someone who is hurting and help her. That will repay me.” I instructed.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked, as she looked me in the eye.
We sat there on the bench and I quietly shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with Julie as we waited for the bus. She listened to every word, her eyes piercing my heart as she took in the story and thought how it was impacting her this day.
“I’ll pray for you.” I said as we clasped hands and she turned to the bus with tears again rolling down her face but with a smile now.
On the drive home, I pressed the button on the CD player and cried as I listened as the pure female voice began singing:
My JESUS, My SAVIOR, LORD there is none like you.
All of my days I want to praise the wonders of your mighty love.
My COMFORT, My Shelter, Tower of refuge and strength,
Let every breath, All that I am Never cease to worship you
Shout to the LORD, All the earth let us sing!
Power and majesty, Praise to the King!
Mountains bow down, And the seas will roar at the sound of your name.
I sing for joy at the work of your hands!
Forever I'll love you!
Forever I'll stand!
Nothing compares with the promise I have in you!
And tonight, Julie is in my prayers. By this hour she is sleeping under her mother’s roof; I pray that they will resolve their differences and be bound together only by love as they face the medical challenge ahead. I pray that her heart was touched as she heard the gospel and that she will turn to God. I pray for her healing; both for her body and her wounded spirit. But I pray too with gratitude that God took me today to that park with a bag of burgers and a knapsack of water bottles to remind me that His children each have a name and story and that He loves every one of them.
Thank you, Father, for removing from my eyes again the comfortable veil of indifference and apathy. Thank you for using me to touch one of your children. Fill me, Father, always with a heart of grace and love and mold me to be a vessel for your glory.
For lack of $16, a life might have ended tonight.
For lack of $16, a wounded child of God slept alone and scared in the park for three days.
For only $16 a child sleeps tonight with her mother.
May I always be ready when God opens such a door.
Jack was raised in a Christian home where he spent his youth preparing to preach God’s word. First published at thirteen, writing and speaking became Jack’s passions. Whether through newspaper columns, magazine articles, radio broadcasts or public speaking engagements, Jack continues to share his heart with his readers. His life’s motto: To Know God, and To Show Him To Others.