Encountering Christ Through My Neighbor

As many of you know, I often go to coffee shops to read and study. At one coffee shop near my home, there is a homeless guy that I have somewhat come to regularly see and converse with. I’m going to call him Fred. Before I met Fred, it was fairly obvious that he was down-and-out. He had on mis-matched clothing, that wasn’t the cleanest or in best shape. And, he had a cardboard sign that he was holding.

The day I met Fred was a cold day this past winter. Fred had been holding a cardboard sign at the nearby street-corner, trying to get some money. He ducked into the coffee shop to warm himself. He got a small coffee and a little something to eat. As he was sitting at the table by me, I could see him counting the little money that he had stuffed into his coat pocket. And, after a little time passed by, he ended up asking me if he could use my phone to make a call. I allowed him to, and he made a couple calls to various people that he knew, and whom he was trying to meet-up with. He thanked me for allowing him to use my phone. A few moments later, he asked me if I had a few dollars that I could spare to give to him. He explained that he had recently lost his construction job and also his apartment, and that he was trying to get enough money together to get to Albany to stay with a relative in the mean time, as he got back on his feet.

At this point, we all probably would have a similar thought going through our heads. “Do I give this guy some money? What is he going to do with it. Should it matter if I know what he is going to do with it? What is the right thing to do here? What does the Lord want me to do right now (I hope this goes through your head regularly)?”

For some time, my typical rule of thumb — in a situation like this — has been the following. If I have cash in my wallet, and if a person actually asks me for money (opposed to just holding a sign or jingling a cup of change), then I will give them what they ask for (using some discernment: I’m not going to hand over a credit/debit card if a homeless person asks me for my credit/debit card). I take this approach because it lines-up with what Jesus says in Luke 6:30-31, “Give to everyone who asks you…. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” I had $5 in my wallet, so I gave it to him. He was grateful.

Typically, I am shy in situations like this, not wanting to force a conversation on someone I have just met. But, I figured the guy had already opened the door to ask for my help, so I thought that I should also ask him if there was anything that I could be praying for on his behalf. I hesitated a little, but went on to ask Fred. He basically told me to just pray that God’s relationship with him would stay good. I’m not sure what he meant by that, or if he even meant it. But, I acknowledged his request.

After our exchange, Fred gathered his stuff and headed back out into the cold to hold his sign next to the passing traffic. I figured that that would probably be the last time I ever saw him. Usually, that’s what these kinds of encounters are like.

I left the encounter thinking to myself, “Wow, that was cool that I was able to be an agent of God’s blessings and grace to Fred.” I even used this encounter as an illustrative story at youth group the following Sunday — as an example of how God is at work all around us, and wanting to work through our lives to bless others. It was definitely a high moment.

Then… came the following week. I was once again at this particular coffee shop. I was reading and writing away on my computer, when I noticed that Fred was once again holding his sign at the nearby intersection. And, next thing I know, Fred comes back into the coffee shop to get warm.

I am ashamed to say what happened next. In my mind, I was hoping that Fred wouldn’t recognize me sitting there. After all, I was the one who helped him last time, so of course he’s going to take advantage of me and want help again.

That’s not how it is supposed to happen right? This is suppose to be the kind of moment where I meet the person once, give them a handout, feel good about it, and never see the person again. Right?

Wrong. That’s what I have been conditioned to think. But, that is not the way it works in God’s kingdom.

God’s kingdom is not about the handout, but about the people that receive the handout. The relationship is what matters. And, in this instance, I was not interested in having a relationship where I was the giver and Fred was the receiver.

Now remember, at this point, Fred hasn’t even noticed me or asked me for more money or help. This is all just going-on in my head. But, the lie had born fruit in my mind, and I acted as if I was busy, so I didn’t have to talk or even make eye contact with Fred. Next thing I know, Fred had warmed himself and was back outside and heading down the sidewalk to some other location.

I felt so ashamed. I knew my attitude was not what the Lord desired of me. And, here I was left with a potential situation, where I might not ever see Fred again, and be able to repent and treat him differently.

I went home dejected and confessed and lamented to my wife that I was a horrible person and a horrible Christian. I even lamented over the fact that I had used my first encounter with him as an example at youth group, but I wasn’t faithful to follow-through with my own advice a week later.

I admit, I purposefully drove past that coffee shop a couple times over the next couple of weeks to see if Fred was standing near there or sitting inside — so that I could have a second chance at letting God love Fred through me.

A few weeks later, I was once again at the coffee shop reading and writing, and Fred stopped in again. This time, I made sure to make eye contact with him and acknowledge him, and talk with him. As we chatted, Fred shared how he had recently attended a church on Hertel, and he was asking what I knew about it. He further shared how he had been staying at St. Luke’s in Buffalo, and how some other guys were trying to steal his stuff. He also shared how Catholic Charities was helping him to get a place to live, which would in turn increase his chances of being employed somewhere. He shared how he had applied for work at many places, but also conveyed that employers were skeptical to hire someone who doesn’t have a permanent address. We ended up chatting about life in general and how Buffalo has been changing, and even politics (this was right after Pres. Trump was elected). We ended our conversation and Fred went back outside to once again hold his sign by traffic.

I share this story to highlight a handful of realities. (1) In the end, this encounter was more about being present to Fred and listening to his story, than it was about him getting something from me.

(2) Fred is a neighbor that I didn’t expect to encounter more than once. But, having met him, I learned through my encounters with him, the value of being present over mere practical help. As much as Fred is not my neighbor next to my house, he is still my neighbor none-the-less (if using Jesus’ definition of a neighbor, Luke 10:25-37). And, just like with Fred, so also it applies with my next-door neighbors — that practical help (mere sharing shovels or cups of sugar) are not nearly as important as the attitude that I exhibit toward my neighbors. If I am trying to avoid eye contact, or avoid addressing people by their names (let-alone even knowing their names), then it may be a reflection of my heart toward my neighbor — which, in turn, if a reflection of my relationship with the Lord. My actions may seem to reflect that I care, but my heart isn’t inclined to care about my neighbor.

(3) As much as I thought Fred would encounter God through me (which I think still happened, even though I faltered), it is just as likely that I encounter God in my interaction with my neighbors. Maybe my neighbors aren’t lacking a home or a job. But, they are lacking something: joy, a unified family, healthy children, purpose, etc. We all are lacking something. We are all poor in some way. God is the only one who is not poor and not lacking anything. But, when I encounter and interact and serve those impoverished around me, I encounter Christ Jesus (Matthew 25:31-45).

Finally, (4) God’s truth may be read in the pages of the Bible, but those truths are further revealed on the pages of everyday life. So, just like my encounter with Fred, so also my encounter with any neighbor may be an opportunity through which God forms me further into the character of Christ Jesus. I wasn’t expecting to be formed in humility, grace, mercy, and forgiveness through my failures with Fred, but that is exactly what God shaped further in my heart through my failure and my response to it.

So take heart. If you’ve failed in your attitude toward any neighbor (next door, or homeless in the nearby coffee shop), Christ’s presence is not absent from that moment. Rather, Christ is present there all the more, if we would just take the time to look for him in the midst of our trials and errors with our neighbors.