I saw an old friend at the homeless shelter last night. It was a bit of a surprise.
I was one of a handful of adults accompanying a church youth group to serve dinner to the shelter’s guests. I could see him approaching as we stood in the hall waiting to wash up and put on our gloves and hairnets. It took me a moment to recognize him, you know, how you can’t place a familiar face when you see it entirely out of context.
He was clearly there for dinner. He spoke as he walked past. “Hi, Chip.” I guess he felt like he had to say something since we’d made eye contact. I said “hi” as he continued down the hall.
Soon the food trays came out to the counter and I stood behind the youth as they began serving guests. He made his way through the line and sat at a table in the small dining area. For ten minutes a debate raged in my mind. Does he wish I hadn’t seen him? Does he hope I’ll leave him alone? Would we both be too uncomfortable if I went over and spoke again? Ultimately I decided it would be worse to do nothing than to risk being rebuffed.
What do you say?
I asked for permission to sit for a moment at his table; he said ok. I searched for something meaningful to say, but what DO you say? How are you? Well obviously not great, he’s eating dinner in a homeless shelter for crying out loud. Good to see you? That sounds trite, and he probably doesn’t think it’s good to be seen there. I fumbled awkwardly, confessing to him that I felt like a dumbass because I didn’t know what to say, but wanted to say SOMETHING. He was gracious but subdued, and not extremely talkative.
Finally I asked how I could pray for him, hoping for something tangible, not wanting to offer the usual hollow I’ll-pray-for-you line. “Right now, anything would be good, really,” came the reply. Fair enough. Not knowing what else to do, I wrapped my arm around his shoulder as I stood to leave and quietly said, “Love you, Brother.”
I moved back behind the counter with the others in my group. He finished his dinner, rose and walked out of the room, never looking in my direction.
I guess we’re done
I figured that was the end of that, but as the time drew near to leave I saw him walk back into the room and sit again. No eye contact. But after several minutes he stood and walked toward me. We chatted more freely this time, even smiling and laughing. He spoke of how proud he is of his daughter who’s graduating from college soon and how he hopes he can make the trip to see her walk across a stage for her degree. I hope so too.
As it was time to go, I reached out and shook his hand, still not sure what to do and feeling mighty inadequate. But hoping that making an old friend laugh was at least better than nothing at all.
(Photo credit: By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Dave Kaylor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)