Immersed In the Streets of Chicago (Meeting A Man Named Troy)…
For the sixth summer in a row the LORD Almighty has blessed me, with the help of many others, to lead a group of 7th, 8th, and 9th graders into Chicago with the goal of putting a face and a name to the condition of poverty and homelessness. A few years ago, thirty of us left our posh suburban homes, boarded three fifteen-passenger vans with far too much luggage and not enough deodorant, and spent a week living in a house just off the campus of NorthParkUniversity. For the majority of our waking hours—from our infamous wakeup call each morning for showers at 6:15am until we fell heavily upon our pillows around midnight—we served in homeless shelters, soup kitchens, a food depository, and elementary schools. We prayed, we laughed, we ate ethnic foods, we wrote encouraging notes to each other, we served strangers, we entertained ourselves (without cell phones and IPods, believe it or not!), and yes we even irritated each other at times—yet in the process we grew closer to the Lord Jesus because we started to see this earthly life from His perspective: a life that is filled with both luxury and poverty, laughter and tears, encouragement and frustration, health and sickness, satisfaction and hunger, opportunity and hopelessness, justice and oppression, freedom and addiction. We were neck-deep in the great conundrum of the world on this side of eternity: we were immersed simultaneously in the undertoe of need and in the surging waters of plenty. And we thank the Lord for this great opportunity, for like Achilles we did not leave these waters unchanged, but indeed we left strengthened and prepared for something more magnificent than we could ever imagine.
One evening, a group of six 7th graders and I were walking along an upscale neighborhood not far from the “Friendly Confines” of Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs (as it turns out, while even the grizzly young lovably-losing wildlife in this neighborhood have a home, many of the humans—both young and old—do not). We were looking for people to interview—people who lived in this neighborhood—for we wanted to understand their ground-view perspective on wealth, poverty, and the strange way these two extremes exist not only side-by-side but often intermingled in Chicago’s many diverse neighborhoods. To add to our experience and to put ourselves in the middle of this densely amalgamated neighborhood of ethnicities, languages, and economics, each of the seven of us had only two dollars for dinner. This was clearly not enough money for us individually to have any semblance of a meal, but if we were to decide to pool our money together, with wisdom and a keen eye for un-suburban-like frugality, we might just be able to scrape together enough food to fill our hungry bellies.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching these young twelve-year-olds spend fifteen minutes realizing that we did not have enough money to enjoy Subway (to their eternal dismay), and I enjoyed much less watching these same twelve-year-olds then spend over thirty minutes figuring out which loaf of bread to buy (name brand or generic), arguing over which dessert to indulge in (Starburst or Hershey’s Chocolate), and debating the merits of splurging on jelly for our sandwiches (they ultimately declined). We walked out of that gourmet CVS/Pharmacy excited about finding a spot to eat our meal (on the ground, naturally), especially since we were unusually famished. [Side note: We were famished—positively starving, the kids declared. Can you remember the last time you were hungry, the last time you actually had hunger pains? And I don’t mean thirst-disguising-itself-as-hunger—I mean real bonafide nothing-in-the-belly-except-the-dog-that’s-in-there-growling hunger. I can’t—I seem to be constantly snacking, like a grazing steer. True hunger is an experience many of us are thankfully unfamiliar with.] We would also be spreading our peanut butter using complimentary spoons that one young man had ingeniously decided to take advantage of (way to go, Christopher F.!). The youngsters even decided—of their own accord as I silently beamed proudly behind them—to donate our surplus money to a Salvation Army bell-ringer (these kids must originally be Dutch or something—they managed to feed seven people on $14 and still have money leftover!). A widow’s mite indeed (Luke 21:1-4)!
As we were walking, we saw a man sitting on the ground. He was dressed in dirty clothes, and he looked up at us and smiled as we approached. I stopped, and so did the youngsters with me. We decided unanimously, albeit cautiously and without speaking a word, to sit down and dine with this man of the street. We introduced ourselves, and the man—whose name is Troy—was extremely excited to have us as his guests. We encircled him and began to converse with him, asking him questions about his past, his present, and his future, all the while recognizing implicitly the surreality of the scene into which we had entered: our new friend seated alone and roofless against the backdrop of late model foreign convertibles, million dollar condominiums, and young business people dressed to the nines and excited to get home to enjoy their Friday night. We even managed to stay focused on Troy as a few people hollered out incoherent laughs and cat calls at this strange motley crew of suburban adolescents, homeless man, red-bearded youth leader, and peanut butter sandwich assembly-line all seated in fellowship on the city sidewalk. The kingdom of God is near indeed (Luke 21:31)!
As three of my young friends made sandwiches for Troy, offered him Pringles, and gave him a precious bottle of water (way to go, Harry Y.!), I asked him about his life on the streets of Chicago. Troy told us that that he wasn’t born homeless; he grew up in a home, went to school as a child, worked jobs as an adult and had his own place to live (sounds similar to us, doesn’t it?). Intensely interested at this point, I asked him how he became homeless. He admitted that it was a combination of poor personal choices, being unable to save money because he was supporting his sick Mother, and finally being fired from his job. It turns out that Troy had worked at a car wash and was fired after damaging the fender of a customer’s car. Troy spoke in detail of the ordeal at his old job without bitterness but with clarity—this must have happened a few weeks ago, I thought. I was speechless as Troy told us that he was fired from this job—and therefore became homeless—five years ago.
Wow. To be fair, I know that I would be extremely upset if my car was damaged at a car wash. There is no question about that. But perhaps my anger would be tempered if I knew that the offending employee’s consequence for the minimal increase in my insurance deductible would be homelessness, an affliction that would last for at least five years and probably much longer. I hope that I wouldn’t demand that the person be fired, as the car owner did in Troy’s case. You see, Troy went on to explain to us that it is difficult to get out of the tidal pool of homelessness once you are caught up in it: it is difficult to shave, shower, and brush your teeth when you are homeless, making it difficult for a business to risk hiring a person without healthy personal hygiene habits; it is difficult to get nice clothes and keep your few clothes clean when you are homeless, making it difficult for a business to hire you without the appropriate attire; and it is almost impossible to even interview for most jobs since the application process requires that you have an address and phone number, making it difficult for a company to contact you and therefore to trust you to show up for work each day. Troy helped all of us understand that for the homeless, relief is not always as simple as just “working harder and getting a job.”
I then asked Troy what advice he would give to us people who still have homes and to the youngsters who will all have jobs someday (LORD willing, of course). Troy thought for a moment and answered as follows: “Work hard, save your money, choose your friends wisely, and have a good reputation in your neighborhood.” Sounds wise to me. By the way, at this point, the youngsters and I were sitting in rapt attention to Troy.
Finally, while Troy was enjoying his peanut butter sandwich (with the same joyful and appreciative remarks, might I add, that we would make over a delicious dinner of roasted prime rib with horseradish cream sauce, garlic mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, and asparagus with hollandaise sauce [hungry yet?]), I asked him what he knew of Jesus. Troy’s eyes lit up as he spoke of Jesus as “my Savior, the One who is always with me, the One who is going to bring me to heaven, and the One who always provides for me, just as He did through you fine folks.” Troy then arched his back, looked up to the sky, and began talking to Jesus quietly, as if we were not there, or at least as if he were unconcerned what we would think of him.
After investing about thirty minutes of our lives with our new friend Troy, my friends and I thanked him for his time, and he thanked us for our kindness. As we got up to catch our elevated train back to paradise, the 7th graders—these young men of God—joined hands and prayed for Troy. They also hugged him, sharing perhaps the first touch of physical love and kindness that Troy had experienced all day long. I was able to look Troy in the eye, shake his hand firmly, and share the words a college friend of mine shared with me many years before: “See you around, Troy. And if not, we’ll see you in the Kingdom!” Even as we spoke, I marveled silently that the Lord Jesus was busy at that very moment getting Troy’s home ready for him in His Kingdom (John 14:1-3).
Lastly, as I told all the youngsters the day before, when I stand before Jesus someday (as we all must—Matthew 12:36 & Hebrews 4:13), I want all the people who ever knew me—whether for a moment or for a lifetime—to say two things if the Lord Jesus were to ever ask them to give Him their opinion of me. I want them to say, “We could tell by what SoulSpartan believed and how SoulSpartan lived that he loves Jesus. And we could tell by what SoulSpartan believed and how SoulSpartan lived that Jesus loves us.” Tonight, with Troy, the LORD Almighty helped me and these seventh graders take a big step towards realizing that great dream.