Every morning my commute to work involves a 15 minute walk from the train station, through Belfast city centre, to my office. En route I pass a lot of homeless people and I have been trying to build up relationships with them rather than just throwing a few coins their way, mumbling some throwaway words, and then hurrying away back to my own safe, comfortable life.
I found it a bit intimidating at first. What if they told me to go away (or more colourful words to that effect) regarding me as just another clueless do gooder who knew nothing of their real needs and situation.
However, pretty much universally, my tentative, nervous approaches have been met with gratitude. Despite their often dishevelled appearance they could teach many of the well dressed commuters that rush past them a thing or two about manners and dignity.
One of tbem is called Maggie. She is a waif of a girl. She has told me she is twenty years old but looks about twelve. Most days you can see her around the city centre huddled in a doorway trying to keep warm. She is totally vulnerable and I shudder to think what experiences she has been through while living on the streets. Sometimes I see her in the company of much older men and my heart breaks for her.
Don’t get me wrong, she is no angel. There are times I speak to her and she can be distant and uncommunicative, rude even. She has issues with drugs and sometimes I find her glassy eyed and monosyllabic. I suspect she lies to me quite a lot but beneath it all is a lost soul with a good heart just waiting to be heard and helped. There but for the grace of God….
Most of the time, however, she is bright, energetic yet proud and humble. I have to force her to take money, food or cigarettes from me. ‘You do enough she says. You’re my mate. I don’t like taking stuff from you.’ When she is lucid she is witty, intelligent and polite. When she is lucid….
The one thing she can never get right is my name. It has become something of a running joke between the two of us. ‘What’s my name?’ I will ask. ‘Paul’ she will confidently reply before slapping her forehead with the palm of her hand upon realising her mistake. ‘I mean Stephen’ followed by profuse apologies.
I laugh now but I didn’t in the early days of our friendship. It annoyed ME. Here I was giving my time and money to someone who couldn’t even be bothered to remember MY name (never mind she couldn’t probably remember her own name when she was high). How ungrateful.
Then I realised one day that it wasn’t about me. It was about HER. Helping her, loving her and revealing the love of God through my actions. Once more I needed to crucify my former self; feeding her with love would simultaneously starve my ego.
Maggie doesn’t go to church. She doesn’t have a Bible. But from my conversations with her I know she has a faith. It is a brittle, fluctuating faith but it is still there, flickering like a candle in a drafty room. If I can in any way strengthen that weak flame in her then I am doing my job. The relationship between Maggie and me is only a conduit to a much more important relationship between Jesus and her.
So it doesn’t matter if she calls me Stephen, Seth or Serendipity. It’s irrelevant. What matters is that she remembers the name of Jesus. At the end of the day, his is the only name that matters.
In order to protect her identity Maggie is not her real name. But please include her in your prayers today. Pray for her protection, provision and salvation.
Please consider helping a homeless person today on your daily commute. A hot drink, a few coins or a friendly word could mean everything to them.