I stopped into our local UPS store one day to close the box we used as a temporary home for our mail when we were in between (literally and figuratively) the east and west coasts this summer. I’d found the employees there to be more pleasant than most and this trip was no exception. As I was turning in my key, I noticed a man with a lot of bags enter the store. In addition to his full arms, I saw the tell-tale signs of someone who has spent years (or even decades) in the sun. His skin, hair, and clothes were battered and unkept.
It took me mere seconds to suspect this man has lived the better part of his recent life on the streets. The homeless are certain quite common in San Diego (everyone loves the weather here, I suspect) but I wondered about his presence inside the store.
An employee also immediately noticed his presence, but did not react in the way I expected. She gave him a warm welcome—by name—and said she had something for him before disappearing into the back. While I waited for my receipt, I saw all three of the employees smile and chat briefly with the man, whom they obviously saw on a regular basis. The first employee then delivered the mail and said, “See you next time!”
I couldn’t resist inquiring about the encounter, at which point I was told the man’s family covers the cost to make sure they can always reach him. Because it’s been that way for years, they have gotten to know him and look forward to seeing him.
How do we relate to others, particularly the homeless?
What struck me about this situation is two-fold. First, these UPS workers certainly didn’t have to treat this man the way they did. I mean, let’s face it: many of us encounter other people on a regular basis but do not ever know their names, let alone enter into any sort of relationship with them.
How much richer would we all live if we did?
Second, his family didn’t have to accept his situation the way they did. How many times has someone you loved done something you didn’t like? What happens when they do something with which you disagree… over and over again? Maybe we lecture or try to bend their will or finally just write them off. This man’s family may have done some of that, but they didn’t write him off. In fact, they wrote to him (and even sent money) on a regular basis. I’m guessing they don’t like or agree with how he is living, but they also recognize it’s his life to live and simply want to be a part of it… however they can.
How have other people learned from these encounters?
This immediately brought to mind two books I read years ago that left an indelible mark upon me. Under the Overpass is the firsthand account of two college students (including the author, Mike Yankoski) who spent five months on the streets—by their own choice. They wondered whether their faith would still be strong if their privileged upbringing and typical college experience were taken away and “became homeless” in order to test that theory. I found the story easy to read, from an academic standpoint, but difficult to digest. It forced me to consider my own biases about the homeless and to examine my response in light of Yankoski’s experiences.
The second book, Same Kind of Different as Me, was recently made into a movie. The book is written as an autobiography of two people, to tell how the lives of a modern-day slave, an international art dealer are intertwined through an unlikely woman. I’ll let the trailer give you a glimpse into how that happens.
Our family saw the movie over the weekend. I didn’t show the trailer to them, or really even tell them much at all about the movie beforehand. My husband was worried it was “one of those low-budget Christian films” but I reassured him by telling it was made by Paramount and included big names like Renée Zellweger, Jon Voight, and Greg Kinnear.
While I didn’t warn them, I will warn you: the story is emotional. Halfway through all four of us were crying. Walking out of the theater, they each took turns telling me I wasn’t allowed to pick a family movie ever again (in between blowing their noses and drying their tears). But then something changed. While working in the yard, my husband encountered all three of the men who live adjacent to us and felt compelled to encourage them to see this movie. And in the car the next day, the girls were still talking about thought-provoking scenes. By the time we had lunch with new friends at church, we were all sharing why you should either read the book or see the movie.
The thing about both these books (and the movie) is they force us to evaluate our biases and predispositions toward others, particularly the homeless. They confront feelings we might rather not, challenging us to judge less and love more. Because when we reach outside ourselves and choose to enter into a relationship with those who look, think, or behave differently, caring for them isn’t a chore or burden… it’s just something you do for someone who is worth it.
What does that mean for you today?
Chris Licata, a Media Relations Intern at New England Patriots, posted this on social media:
Today I received a belated “Happy Birthday” card for Tom Brady from a little boy in Fargo, North Dakota. Accompanying it was a note from mom pleading us not to send tickets or anything because the family already had a surprise trip planned to Foxboro this fall. Much to her surprise, I picked up the phone and called mom to let her know that we had received her son’s thoughtful card. She even let him listen in on the unexpected call for a few seconds. She couldn’t have been more appreciative for the 3-4 minutes we spent on the phone. I can’t help but smile when I imagine the boy’s reaction when he receives his Patriots “care package” in the coming days. The lesson: It’s the smallest details that can make the biggest impact. Making people feel valued, even if only for a moment, is what matters most. Take the time to go the extra mile.
So… who do you regularly encounter but rarely acknowledge? Who might you normally dismiss, today, who could use a smile, greeting, hug, phone call, card, or other message that they are valued… and loved.