It was a crisp, autumnal morning and the skies were slightly overcast, threatening rain. The day started off seemingly uneventful; the usual morning commute comprising a leisurely stroll to the office – providing necessary thinking time – whilst also drinking in the scenery of this beautifully historic part of London.
But as I walked through the little church courtyard, I came across a homeless man sleeping on a bench. Not unusual but what happened next was. Out of habit, I said good morning – looking him directly in the eyes and ensuring my body language conveyed an openness to conversation. He replied good morning. I asked how he was doing, expecting a simple one word reply. Instead he spoke about how much he’d enjoyed last night’s sleep noting it was ‘one of the best nights in a while’.
In his fifties, white and of fair appearance, what struck me most about his obviously dishevelled exterior was the blue rosary around his neck.This would normally be my cue to say ‘God bless’ upon departure but the words froze in my mouth. And as if he were a mindreader, he looked me straight in the eyes and said the very words I couldn’t utter. ‘God bless you.’ I replied sheepishly- surely I should not have been afraid to say something to him?
The next morning, I saw him, Tom, again and we had similar conversation but this time with a little more detail. Someone had given him coffee and it said it made him feel alive and warm. I promised to bring him some tomorrow if he would like? Yes please he responded.
I didn’t buy the coffee. It rained so heavily the next morning that I knew I wouldn’t see him. Eventually I did see Tom, the day after, and came equipped with a mini snack pack of pastries, coke and a banana for energy. This time we spoke for a little longer. Tom told me some of his story; he had an alcohol addiction and wanted to be rid of it. Tom also spoke of his faith – he believed in God – and how thankful he was to the faith- based charity which was currently supporting him.
What struck me most about our conversations was how grateful Tom was just to talk to someone. He said so many times people would walk right past as though he didn’t exist, even when he’d say hello. To make matters worse, Tom does not beg, he is not interested in people’s money or pity. Tom just wanted to be acknowledged and his inherent dignity and worth respected as any other human being would.
We both agreed some people are just plain rude, whilst others are simply oblivious to those around them, especially in London with all it’s hustle and bustle. Tom was from up north originally and because I have family based up there too, we noted that, generally speaking, northerners were a tad bit more warm, open and friendly compared to us southerners. What he said next touched me in a way I can’t express: ‘I can take the cold weather but I can’t take cold hearts’. Looking me deep in the eyes.
It echoes a similar episode in ‘Overrated‘, written by an American Korean called Pastor Eugene Cho, who I heard speak at the London School of Theology’s annual Deo Gloria lecture a few years ago. In the book (which I would highly recommend reading) Pastor Eugene shares his experience of playing a homeless person in a play at high school. Noticing his inability to get into character, his drama teacher challenges him to be ‘homeless’ for a day, in the hope that it would improve (by his own admission) his abysmal acting skills.
Rising to the occasion, Eugene noticed people would give, in some instances, throw money at him but completely avoid eye contact or any sort of meaningful interaction.
All he wanted was to be acknowledged and known, yet, in his own words, he felt utterly invisible. It was this – not the tiredness, the lack of sanitation, privacy, absence of a peaceful night’s sleep or place to rest – that most affected him. Tom was saying something similar.
We spoke some more but ever conscious of being late for work, I weakly attempted an exit, but how could I leave knowing full well Tom wanted to continue the conversation? Eventually another gentleman passed by who he knew. They greeted one including shaking hands. At this point I acknowledged the substantial amount of dirt under his finger nails, like talons. I would be lying if the sight of it and the prospect of a handshake, didn’t make me flinch momentarily. But as if by divine prompting, I knew that this is exactly what was going to happen next.
As I said goodbye, and that I hoped to see him next week (although really hoping he would be in a shelter rather than outside) I told Tom I would pray for him even if I didn’t see him. He wished me all the best for the day, favour with my manager but more than this, he did the very thing I knew he would. Tom took my hand, shook it and then did something beyond beautiful. He kissed my hand and said “I wanted to treat you like the lady you deserve to be treated. God bless and thank you.”
To this day, this act of kindness overwhelms me, even with all he was going through.
I have had several divine encounters like this with homeless people who have such a deep sense of spirituality. I can’t help but wonder- could we be entertaining angels without knowing it?
The winter chill has settled in and as I reluctantly reach for my winter coat, admitting defeat that summer is dead and gone, I can’t help but remember those who don’t have a roof over their heads.
There are plenty of ways to get involved and support those experiencing homelessness including volunteering at your local homeless shelter (The Robes Project, ASLAN, Brixton Soup Kitchen); volunteering over Christmas – through Crisis; donating money or supplies to a homeless project; buying a hot meal for someone or a bed for the night (there are several initiatives which allow you to do this); give money if you feel compelled to (there is huge debate about this- trust your gut) or supplies (personal hygiene packs, jumpers, jackets, socks etc)- these are some of the most obvious practical things to do.
One of my favourite initiatives, Wrap Up London, is a three day campaign by Hands On London, where they collect coats from the public to give to those who need it – including people who are on low incomes and homeless people. This year’s collection is taking place in various locations across London between 7th – 9th November- check them out if you have any coats spare!
But whether you do this or not – one of the simplest and most effective things I have learnt is to show kindness; look a (homeless) person in the eyes, smile (if appropriate) and just say hello- open to conversation and simply recognising they are also made in in His image too.