Monday, June 12, 2006

Seminary on the Streets

I start at Fuller Theological Seminary in nine days. But for the last year, my seminary has been the streets, and my professors have included the homeless. Some have been my greatest teachers. Three people in particular have taught me the meaning of gratitude.

I first met Bruce & Sheri on a roasting hot summer day in the historic district of Philadelphia. The sun was blazing, and the temperature was soaring well over 100 degrees. As I walked down the sidewalk, I saw Bruce sitting on the sidewalk holding a cardboard sign that asked for money and food. His wife Sheri was across the street also hoping for generosity from tourists. It was already afternoon, yet their day’s accumulation had yet to be enough to buy any water, let alone food. Needless to say, they were both quite weak and dehydrated. As we ate Philly pretzels and chugged down water, our friendship began. Bruce, Sheri, and I hung out a lot that summer. As their trust in me grew, they opened up their lives to me. Bruce and Sheri were in their young thirties. Originally from York, Bruce lost his roofing job because he made an ethical stance to not join a union. They had recently moved to Philadelphia in hopes of finding more work. Bruce also was diagnosed with Leukemia. There were days when Bruce’s radiation therapy, coupled with the intense summer heat, caused him to be so weak that Sheri and I would have to carry him to an air-conditioned restaurant and feed him.

One night in August, I was helping take a CSM youth group around to feed and talk with the homeless. We had two meals left, and so I asked if we could visit Bruce and Sheri. When we arrived, Sheri had just finished meticulously laying out her cardboard and blanket for the night. She told me that Bruce had gotten lucky that day. He had waited with the other day laborers in line for a job. Unlike most days, today he was hired to help with roofing. As we talked with Sheri, Bruce suddenly appeared in the distance. He barely had enough energy to walk. Once he staggered to us, he collapsed onto his bed. Bruce had been roofing all day in the intense heat. He was burned bright red. The contractors only paid Bruce $20, so in order to save money, he decided to walk the five miles home instead of taking the bus. What can one say in the face of such suffering and injustice? Thankfully, Sheri interrupted the silence by asking us to pray for them. With his lasts words before falling asleep, Bruce prayed, "Lord, we will not worry about tomorrow. Thank you for helping Sheri and I make it through today."

I have discovered this kind of radical gratitude amongst numerous people who endure great suffering. For example, fast-forward eight months and across the country. I now found myself sitting on a park bench in Santa Monica, near the beach. I was observing how two different worlds—those with no home and those with multiple—could live so close together yet never see each other. As the homeless set up their beds for the night in the park, I looked across the street at the booming night life. Sports cars, jaguars, and Rolls Royces were pulling up to valet parkers. The night clubs had bouncers and lines out the door. While deep in thought, suddenly a rat ran by my foot. That was enough motivation for me to leave the park and cross the street…the invisible wall that separated these two worlds. As I walked down a busy shopping promenade, I noticed an elderly, Irish lady who, like Bruce, was holding a sign asking for help. Typically when people ask me for help, I’m down to my last dollar and already running late to my next appointment. But this particular night, I had the time, a friend had just given me some money with which to bless others, she seemed polite, and there was an inexpensive Irish restaurant (McDonalds) just next to her. Feeling confident, I approached her and asked if she wanted to get a late dinner together. "Oh no," she gently yet passionately responded. Seeing my confusion she continued, "I’ve been so thirsty, and so a few minutes ago I closed my eyes and prayed to God for some water. And when I opened my eyes look at what was at my feet!" I quickly lowered my eyes from her radiant smile to her feet. I could not believe my eyes! There must have been at least 20 water bottles in two grocery bags. "Do you want to celebrate God’s faithfulness with some ice cream?" I inquired. "Oh no! I can’t go anywhere. I haven’t finished thanking God yet."

I walked away humbled. I too quickly move from thanking God for providing my needs today to nervously praying that He’ll do the same with tomorrow’s challenges. I am slowly learning the wisdom Jesus taught in Matthew 6:34. "Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble."

-Jason Porterfield, CSM LA City Host Spring 2006

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