This is Cameron and his dog Nico. After a fight with his dad, Cameron was put out on the streets and has been staying in a homeless shelter downtown for about a week. Cameron told me that when he chose a cot at the shelter, he laid down and printed on the wall above him was Joshua 1:9, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” This morning our paths crossed at the West Pennway exit in KC, where we gave him bottled water, clothes and a Bible. And as we were parting ways, he told me, “I’ll see you in Heaven.”
This is the prayer wall in the Lisa Barth Chapel at Children’s Mercy Hospital. Each white card that you see folded here and inserted into the wall represents a prayer for a sick child and their family. Guests to the chapel are welcome to leave a prayer request or take a card to pray over. There are no guidelines or restrictions on what types of prayers can be written — no stipulations about denomination or religion. There are just prayers as they might be sent straight up to God, from Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and so on. I took one last week and on the card were a few sentences scrawled in handwriting that belonged either to a child or a desperate adult turning to faith as a last hope: “Pray for Jules. Baby girl. We love you.” As simple as it is, this prayer and the idea of this wall have stayed with me for days. Prayer is how we build our relationship with God. And this wall captures perfectly how I imagine prayers arriving in Heaven for Him to delicately weigh against His plan for us. While prayer is often our last resort — even for some longtime believers — all we have to do is put our words out there so they can eventually be found, read, and blessed. Our prayers don’t have to be pretty or legible — they just have to be sent, displaying our belief.
My intention in all this was not to draw comparisons between abandoned animals and lost human beings, but it happened all the same. I told my resident Cat Whisperer about the stray cats I’d stumbled across last weekend while making food deliveries to the homeless in downtown Kansas City. Naturally Caroline wanted to visit in person, so yesterday afternoon we loaded up some food and made the drive from our little town to the urban core, exiting the interstate at West Pennway. Immediately we were greeted by the city’s panhandlers and other destitute personalities. Their faces made me second guess my decision to bring an 11 year-old into this part of the world, but nevertheless we drove a few blocks and stopped under the overpass near 20th and McGee where the cats make a home by a vacant warehouse. We set out some cans of food and waited. After a few minutes, a black cat and an orange tabby gathered up the bravery to come out of hiding and take some nibbles. While Caroline concentrated on the cats, I kept watch on our surroundings to make sure we hadn’t attracted any unwanted attention from passers-by. The cats scattered after their bellies were full and we walked back to our truck satisfied that we’d managed to see the cats take the food. As I started the truck, I noticed my homeless friend Kevin carrying a full trash bag up the street. I hollered to him as we drove up the block and offered him some bottled water we brought along.
“How do you know my name?” He asked.
I’d spoken to him at least a half-dozen times in the last year, but he’d apparently lost track of those interactions.
“We have the same name,” I said. “It’s easy to remember.”
“Oh yeah, you’re the Bible guy,” he said. “What you’re doing … what you’re doing … it helps … it helps. Everybody out here on the streets keeps trying to get me to do drugs. I keep telling them no … ”
And from there, he launched into a 2-3 minute impromptu sermon about reading the Bible and why he distrusts other people in his exact situation.
I let him talk and then a passing car caused a break in the conversation and a clear opportunity to move on.
As we pulled away, Caroline asked, “Do you ever feel scared going up to people you don’t know and talking to them?”
“Sometimes, but the conversation you have with them is more important than the food you give them,” I said. “They just want to be acknowledged.”
She accepted that and we drove toward home, handing out bottled water to the panhandlers we’d passed earlier.
Later that night, the homeless people throughout our city would be searching for warm and hidden places to sleep, wondering where their next meal would come from — maybe thinking about lost families or loved ones long gone. Those are likely the same images that flash through a cat’s memory as they make a den together with other strays under a metal delivery dock. We are all God’s creatures, patiently waiting for a blessing — in their case, in the form of a stranger’s kindness — to lift us above our unthinkably sad surroundings.
Earlier this winter, the KCPD scattered a homeless camp that was set up under the overpass near the Children’s Mercy Hospital parking lot downtown. A few weeks after that, shelter boxes and food bowls were set out for the stray cats who hide in an abandoned warehouse in the same spot. I’m sure whoever put out supplies for the animals did so with the best of intentions, but this scene makes me wonder about the value we humans put (or don’t put) on each other’s lives these days.
This man’s loudest voice is as soft as a whisper. Beaten down by luck or fate or the elements, my friend Bill will talk and talk, but not so he can be heard. His words are more about recognition — letting someone in on the fact that he’s a man, still alive, and not a lifeless fixture like a tree or a bench in the park where he sits. For at least two winters now, he has been out on the streets. A day like today — temps in the 40s, nearing 50 — is an unexpected blessing after nights sleeping on frozen pavement and frosted ground. But it’s a fleeting reprieve. The weather will turn again soon, and while the rest of us retreat inside to jobs we’d rather not have and homes that seem like burdens, we are alive. We speak. People see us. These are bigger things than we realize.