If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? James 2:16 NIV
It had been a frustrating day for me. Several attempts at sharing my faith as a grad student and employee at the University of Minnesota had fallen flat. My evangelistic zeal as a recent Christian convert was flagging and in my discouragement I removed the button I always wore identifying myself as a believer. Later that cold February afternoon, as was my custom, I drove for home through downtown Minneapolis to pick up my wife Susan from her place of employment. As I was approaching her building and looking for some on-street parking I saw a shabbily dressed man standing on the corner causing a scene and harassing people who walked by him. Just down the block I found a parking space. As I exited the car and headed for the parking meter I looked back down the sidewalk and to my alarm, saw the man walking my way. I could see he was obviously drunk or on drugs, and from his disheveled appearance and erratic behavior I determined he was someone I did not want to have anything to do with.
To avoid him I quickly turned to put money in the parking meter so I could be on my way. But no sooner had I finished plugging the meter and turned to go, he was right up next to me. He was middle aged, with a scraggly beard, unkempt hair, and wearing an old dirty ankle-length winter coat. He appeared to me to be homeless. The stench of alcohol mixed with B.O. almost overwhelmed me and I drew back. Simultaneously he moved closer with an outstretched hand and as he spoke I realized he was toothless. “Can you spare me a dime?” he gummed.
Forming a quick judgment in light of his appearance and request – I thought to myself, “Yeh, so you can buy more booze and continue to harass more people for money? No way!” But then, rationalizing more for my benefit than for his, I acquiesced, reaching for my billfold to give him a couple of bucks – just to get rid of him. Although I resented what felt like a hold up, I did it to free myself from the discomfort he was causing me.
Just then he said something else. Something so out of the realm of the way I had sized him up, that it jarred me out of my judgmental, self-protective, self-centered mindset. As I reached for my wallet the man said – “What I really need is the Lord.” Stunned, I paused. Did I really just hear what I thought I heard? “What?” I asked. “I really need the Lord,” he replied.
In that moment everything changed. I saw him and my entire encounter with him differently. Instantly my irritation vanished, my revulsion of him vanished, and my judgmental attitude toward him vanished. Instead, I now felt compassion welling up within me for him, God’s compassion. Here was a man desperately looking for God, not a handout. A man looking for peace, not a fight. A man needing grace, not judgment.
With my heart warming to God’s love for the guy . . . I said to him, “I am a Christian, if you really mean what you just said, I can pray for you right now.” He said “I do, I want the Lord in my life.” “OK” I said. “Then I’ll lead you in a prayer…the important thing is that you fully agree with the words you repeat after me.” He said “I will, I want the Lord in my life.” So right there on the sidewalk in downtown Minneapolis, I put my arm around the guy and led him in a sinner’s prayer. He started to weep as we prayed, and his earnestness and sincerity brought tears to my eyes too.
But it was what he did after we finished praying that capped off an unbelievable turn of events. I could never have imagined it ten minutes earlier. Immediately after we finished praying he threw his arms up in the air and started dancing on the sidewalk. Shouting “Praise God! Praise God! Praise God!” His joy was so spontaneous and infectious I could not help but join in on the celebration. It was just then, as the two of us were rejoicing together there by the curb, that my wife came out of her building and approached us with a bewildered look of surprise.
After some mutual introductions and providing a brief explanation of what had just happened, I turned to our newfound brother in Christ, whom we discovered went by the name of Mike. “Mike” I said, wanting to establish some kind of follow-up to his salvation, “tell me a little bit about yourself.” In short order, I learned that he was indeed homeless, and had been sleeping in an abandoned house in North Minneapolis. He was from out of town and all alone, and been fending for himself in Minneapolis for several months.
Susan and I looked at each other. Here we were in the middle of winter, standing out on a freezing street under a darkening sky with a guy who literally had no place to go to get warm and have a meal. How could we in good conscience leave him there, out in cold, after what we had just witnessed God do in his life? In that awkward moment, as we were hemming and hawing, searching for the courage to give the right response, a familiar verse from the Epistle of James came to mind. “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it” (James 2:16 NIV)? That settled it. I broke the silence and we took the plunge, inviting Mike to come home with us for the evening.
To be continued in my next blog post.
Your comments and feedback are always welcome.