I usually see Gary every Monday afternoon, selling homemade jewelry on the street where we first met over twenty years ago. Back then, Gary was a teenager experiencing homelessness and walked around with two backpacks. One for schoolbooks and one for all of his clothes. He isn’t homeless anymore and is living with his dad. Gary is always smiling! Like a family reunion, our conversations are a mix of reminiscing and catching up. How are your kids? Remember the movie we saw on your sixteenth birthday? Did you hear who died? Most of the kids Gary grew up with have passed away. It is the sad truth about adverse childhood trauma. Poverty and abuse make Gary and his peers vulnerable to an early death. When every I ask Gary what he wants me to keep in my prayers, it is aways a prayer for someone else. Gary is grateful to be alive, and often prays thanksgiving for the provision of food, shelter, and safety. Things most of us take for granted.
Gary has a hernia and has been waiting three months for surgery. He has been walking to his doctors’ appointments because the bus is too expensive. My offer to take him to his surgery, wait for him, and drive him home is a major relief. He can’t get medical care if he doesn’t have a ride and I am the only person he knows who has a car.
The morning of the surgery Gary is ready and waiting for me. We arrive at the hospital on time. The admitting staff verifies that I will be there to take Gary home. Ten hours later, the surgery is a success. The nurse gives me instructions for his medication and prescription. We drive to the pharmacy and Gary is beside himself. He is convinced that he has lost his wallet. He calls his dad, looks in the plastic bag the hospital gave him and can’t find it. I explain our situation to the pharmacist, and she is able to fill the prescription with his date of birth and Social Security number. I ask Gary if he has checked his pockets and his wallet is found!
On our way home Gary tells me that he loves me, that I am like family, and that I have always been there for him. He names all the people that he grew up with that have died and tells me that he sees a therapist once a week. “A lot of bad things happened to me when I was on the street. A lot of terrible things happened to me before I was homeless.” We talk about anxiety and how traumatic events of the past can feel like they are happening in the present.
Gary has to walk up three flights of stairs to get to his apartment. He is in a lot of pain, and we stop every few steps. I encourage deep breathing and tell corny jokes. His dad answers the door, the tv is blaring and I explain the interval schedule for Gary’s pain meds. His dad thanks me and mentions he bought Gary pudding and soup.
People always ask me, why are there so many homeless people? My answer is always why is there so much neglect, poverty, and abuse? All my friends on the street have experienced levels of trauma that have made it virtually impossible for them to function in a world as violent as ours. The story of Jesus, his suffering and resurrection creates space for supernatural hope to overwhelm the overwhelmed, transforming trauma into grace. My time with Gary reminds me that the inclusive radical love of Jesus really does change everything. “Most important of all, you must sincerely love each other, because love wipes away many sins (1 Peter 4:8 CEV).”