My son wanted to know more about the man we just fed.
We were a safe distance away from the downtown park where we found Bill sitting alone on a bench with all his worldly belongings by his side, in plastic bags.
My daughters were walking ahead of us and already part-way through the crosswalk when Charlie asked me, “What did that man say? His voice was so quiet, I couldn’t hear him.”
Earlier that morning, my girls helped me make bags of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, apples, and bottled water to deliver to a small band of homeless people who had set up camp in a park near where I work. I wanted to bring the kids along so they could see for themselves what the lives of the homeless were like. My girls were experienced at this: they had helped me make sandwiches to drop off during the week, but they’d never seen for themselves the people we were helping.
That Saturday Annie and Caroline were eager to lend a hand. Charlie seemed more distant. He wasn’t resistant, just … disinterested. He never came into the kitchen where his sisters has set up an assembly line of bread, spreads, and sandwich bags. Instead he chose to watch Saturday morning cartoons in the living room despite me inviting all three of my kids to pitch in.
I wasn’t disappointed in him. At his age – 11 – his two biggest concerns in life are baseball and predicting the winner of the Batman vs. Superman movie that won’t be in theaters until next year. He had also been somewhat slow over the last year to come around to our family’s new Christian walk. But like his sisters, he has such a golden heart – I couldn’t wait to see how the Lord might begin to work through him.
Charlie stood close to my side for the first few minutes while I talked to Bill, who sat slumped on the bench with a Royals baseball cap and another cap on over it. His clothes were holey and dirty, and despite the temperatures that were approaching 90, he wore long sleeves and a thick pair of winter gloves.
For much of our conversation, Bill was nearly impossible to hear with the morning breeze rustling in the trees above and the rush of traffic behind him. I knew when Charlie finally broke away from our conversation to look around the rest of the small park with his sisters that they couldn’t hear a word Bill was saying.
Bill’s words were barely audible even for me, who was much closer. He told me where I could find more homeless to feed, but he wanted to be sure to impress the fact on me that water was more important. “We’re doing pretty good on food,” he told me.
Before I left him with enough food for several meals (some of which he promised to hand out to his fellow campers), I mentioned that the teenagers at my church wanted to make serving the homeless an outreach function of our youth group. I told him he would see me again, probably with more kids in tow. He marveled at that.
“I wish my church had a program that helped the homeless,” he said. “It wouldn’t take much.”
I knew he was talking about a time long ago – probably when he was not much older than Charlie. I imagined him a reluctant kid sitting in church pews, the way most of us were.
We said goodbye and he said those words that every homeless person we’ve helped has said to me this summer: “God bless you.”
When we were 100 steps away and there was no chance Bill could overhear us, that’s when Charlie showed his first notion of curiosity about our conversation.
“That man told me someone stole all the water he had last night,” I said. “I guess he was storing it under the bench and someone – another homeless man – took it from him.”
I felt my son’s hand squeeze mine tightly as we followed my girls into the crosswalk. He was gripping my hand harder than I can ever remember, even when he was much littler and still needed me for guidance. My job now is to let the Lord guide him and this was our first big step forward. We crossed the street and said nothing else about it.