It started as I turned into the parking lot of the grocery store. I was in town to do a few errands, and there on the sidewalk sat a homeless couple holding a cardboard sign. "Please Help. God Bless." Too often I've ignored such signs, wary of giving money straight out of my pocket and ignorant of how else to help. But this is a small town, small enough that we hardly see those signs, and small enough that no one here should ever have to hold one up.
So I decided to help. But what to offer them? Luckily, I had three tools at my disposal: a phone, a town phone book, and last week's church bulletin. I called the church - no answer. I called everyone from my church whose last name I could remember - no one was home. I called other churches in town, knowing that certain ones offer vouchers - no answer. Apparently no one needs God on a Thursday.
Then in my bulletin I noticed a listing for the town's food pantry, open only once a week, which coincidentally happened to be now. So I drove there, hoping they would know of other resources in town. "What do they need?" they said. "I haven't talked to them yet," I said. "We only have food," they said, "and they would need a place to cook it. Try calling the Resource Center."
I called the Resource Center. "There's no place in town for homeless people to stay," they said. "Try calling the Reverend So and So." I tried calling Reverend So and So - no answer.
Now about forty minutes into my wild goose chase, I decided to give up and go chat with the folks, offering at least the food pantry service. Ah, but God has perfect timing, for just then the youth pastor of my church, having heard one of my messages, called from 30 miles away and told me of all the vouchers available from the ministerial association - restaurants, gas, motels. At last I had something to offer.
I went and sat down next to the couple. They had come from halfway across the country, hoping to move to a nearby city with a homeless shelter and start looking for work. They were riding freight trains, camping. They were a brother and sister in Christ. When I mentioned the motel room, their eyes lit up. "Oh, it would be nice to get a good shower," they said.
I told them I'd call my pastor and see what he could do. I gave them directions to the church, in case they were pressed to move on. What better place to camp out than on the lawn of a church? They thanked me. We hugged. I felt good.
I went into the grocery store to finally do my shopping, taking my phone with me, and in between the potato chips and the bottled juice managed to arrange with my pastor which motel to take them to. And instantly I was on a happy high. I said hello to the butcher, one of my neighbors. I talked with a complete stranger about the delicious smell of the peaches. I was eager to get back outside to give the couple a ride to the motel.
But when I emerged, they were gone. Had they found the ride to the city they were looking for? Had they returned to their camp outside of town to fetch their belongings? I drove from one end of town to the other looking for them, but they were nowhere to be found. But there are people in town now who know to look for them, and they have the directions to the church, the means to get help. I hope wherever they are, they are on a road to renewal.
The entire odyssey took two hours of my life. I could not think of a better way to spend two hours. It is one thing to want to walk in the footsteps of Christ, but it is quite another to walk the distance between your parking space and the people on the sidewalk. I have not done enough in my life to reach out to other people; I have not taken the time to see what I can do to help. Even if nothing else was accomplished today, there was an exchange of names, hugs and handshakes, and smiles. Toothless smiles I can remember forever.
Thank you, Lord, for making me read the sign.