By Cathy Stone
One afternoon in October, I was in the Family Life Center setting up for a church event with a few co-workers. We were near the gym door when a man appeared, startling us since the building was empty. I’d guess his age to be around 50, with backpack and small suitcase in hand, and dark silver streaked hair sticking out somewhat wildly from beneath a ball cap. He apologized for intruding, but was wondering if the church had a raffle for bus tickets (Cap Metro). He noticed we were sorting clothing and household items and said he was ok but that he had a friend who could use a bag. I had to tell him that so far, I had not seen any bags that had been donated for the FreeStore. He asked where the FreeStore was located, so I took him downstairs to the Chapel and found him a FreeStore flyer.
He told me that he never imagined that he’d find himself homeless. He’s been at the ARCH for a month now and that every few days he feels shock that this is where he is. He went on to share how much homelessness has changed him. He’s become more patient and thankful. He said he used to always be in a hurry, consuming this and that—food, things, and time… rushing from one thing to the next. Not anymore. He told me about a recent time when he was at HEB purchasing 2 Snickers bars, it was all he had money for. The cashier had spent a long time assisting the person in front of him. When it was his turn to check-out she apologized for the wait. His reply? He told her there was absolutely no need to apologize, that they have so much in the store and that he was just happy to be getting the two candy bars. He had a similar story about getting a meal from KFC, had to wait but didn’t mind at all, just thankful for the meal.
I let him know that on Monday he could come to the church office for a 7-day bus pass or a $10 HEB gift card, if we still had any available. After a moment he spoke, saying, “Really, an HEB card?”
He was clearly surprised and seemed to be having a tough time digesting that he could get a $10 HEB card instead of a bus pass. He told me that he could attend another men’s group meeting at the ARCH and be able to get a 7-day bus pass. His expression at the thought of having $10 for HEB was one of disbelief, joy, and almost a sort of wonder…like a child finding out they were being given a trip to a toy store and could buy anything they wanted, a child imagining so many happy possibilities. He said, “I could go in and actually buy something I need.” First, he said toothpaste, and then he said no, the ARCH has toothpaste. He looked like he was trying hard to decide what necessity he would buy for himself. I told him I wished I had one of the cards with me. He replied, oh no, Monday will be fine. And again, the mixture of surprise and joy at the possibility of getting that card was apparent, even having to wait until Monday.
I told him that we’d love to have him join us next Thursday morning for worship after the breakfast. I told him that people come to the chapel on Thursday mornings for many reasons. Some to worship, sing, and pray. Others for a quiet place to sit and listen. And for some it’s a quiet place to sleep for 30-45 minutes, without worrying about someone harassing you or stealing your stuff. He said that he’s been a Christian since 1979 and that he became a Christian because of the 700 Club. He laughed and said I had probably never heard that before. I told him that the folks that gather on Thursday mornings come from all sorts of backgrounds, all different traditions or no-tradition, that I may be a pastor of the UMC but that there are actually very few United Methodists in that service. All are welcome.
As we walked to the door I told him to let Laurie know I had visited with him about the HEB card. He seemed to be getting emotional as he reached into his pocket. He pulled out a few coins, a penny and a nickel, I believe. He said, “This is all I have. $10 at HEB would just be…” He was without words to finish the sentence and had tears in his eyes.
I think about my trips to HEB. I shop there regularly making sure I have my stack of reusable bags ready to fill. $10? That would not put much in just one of my bags. What would I get with only $10? What if that was the only opportunity I had to purchase something for myself? What if I was at a place in life where I had to rely on churches and non-profits for my meals, handouts of toiletry items, second or even third-hand clothing? The majority of men and women I meet on Thursday mornings did not plan for this to be their life. Many actually have jobs, but can’t make enough to afford a place to live. Or, some even have a place to live but can’t afford food regularly because rent takes all they earn. Shelter or food? Clothing or the bus pass needed to get to and from work? I get asked for assistance to get all sorts of things — socks, bus passes, birth certificates, IDs, shoes, clothing, backpacks or bags for personal items, a way to get back home somewhere outside of Austin…Often, items are needed so that they can start work that day – work boots, black shoes with non-slip soles, food handlers licenses. They have found a job but without these items they can’t start working and without work, can’t purchase the items.
This is one story, one individual among many here at FUMC on Thursday mornings, one among the thousands of homeless in Austin. $10 doesn’t seem like much to most of us, but to many $10 goes a really long way. What if we looked at $10 like that?