Street Love: My Homeless Experience
By Paul Matsushima | Published on July 21, 2008
This is a true story describing my weekend-long trip in Philadelphia experiencing homelessness. I was stripped of my material privilege to help understand a dependence on God to provide for my bodily needs.
This is a true story describing my weekend-long trip in Philadelphia experiencing homelessness. During the trip, all of the participants gave up money, technological gadgets, and access to hygiene. We wore used clothes from a thrift clothing store and were allowed to bring three items. I brought a pen, paper towels, and my baseball cap. This stripping of our material privilege helped us develop a more level mindset of what it’s like to be homeless and to develop a dependence on God to provide for our bodily needs. Mind you, PRoP didn’t just let us loose on the streets and say, “Good luck!” We slept two nights in a neighborhood church and only spent the majority of Saturday out on the streets. Many thanks to Chris Lahr, PRoP (Pauper’s Rites of Passage) program, and Mission Year, for being awesome leaders, for making all of this possible, and for all of their hard, dedicated work for the advancement of the Kingdom of God and with the inner city urban communities.
It was Saturday afternoon in the humid city of Philadelphia, the home of “brotherly love.” Sky scrapers gave ample shade from the scorching sun, cars honking and pigeons cooing polluted the city with noise, and the foot traffic was low due to the businessman’s weekend. After half-a-day of wandering the urine-soaked streets and mingling with the homeless, I found myself smack dab in the middle of the metropolis, on a mission. I came to Philly to better understand poverty and homelessness – by being homeless and penniless for the weekend – and to understand what Jesus truly meant by not worrying about what we will eat, drink, or wear (Matthew 6:31). I had no idea how much God was about to show me.
At around 1PM, all of the walking was taking its toll on me. I was sweaty and getting dehydrated, my feet were tired, and the breakfast I ate six hours ago was pretty much digested. I saw two options to ease my hunger: get food at a homeless shelter or panhandle. Being the adventurous (or maybe stupid) guy that I am, I chose to beg. With my pen in one pocket and my map of Philly in the other, I set off to find areas with the most foot traffic to get some money to fill my grumbling gut. At first, I stood outside a Shenanegin’s-style restaurant and humbly asked, “Can you spare some change?” again and again. What I got was no luck, and no recognition. The well-to-do tourists with their snobbish air seemed both deaf and blind to my requests.
Okay, asking didn’t work, I thought to myself. I slunk away pondering my next move. As I walked past a dumpster, a childhood image of Oscar the Grouch flashed into my mind, and I was reminded of the resourcefulness of dumpster diving. I pried open the green-city dumpster and a stench of fish guts and garbage water flooded my nostrils. I frantically scanned the can and saw what I needed: cardboard boxes! I quickly pulled one out and slammed the lid down, drowning out the horrible smell. Then I savagely ripped off a flat edge (my hunger was really kicking in) and scribbled, “HELP ME EAT” on it. Short, simple, and to the point. I figured people would trust that I’d use their money for food, not drugs, because I don’t look like a jobless, young-drug addicted punk (do I? People always tell me to cut my hair…).
I eventually plopped down in front of the Burlington Coat Factory, hoping some kind shoppers would have pity on me and give me some food or money to buy food. I sat there like a framed-portrait with only my steady eyes following the passer-bys. I was quiet, still, and had my “HELP ME EAT” sign in front of me, simply observing the people. But as I sat, and sat…and sat…nothing happened. No one gave me anything. No one approached me. Almost everyone ignored me, and the few that didn’t looked at me with either contempt or confusion. It’s amazing how asking strangers for money can so quickly change your view of human kindness. I must’ve sat on that gum-tattered sidewalk for nearly an hour, practically invisible to the Saturday-afternoon “mall-rats.” Every passer-by who ignored me was like a body-shot to the ole self-esteem. Micro-aggressions, they call them. They may not knock you out in one punch, but over time these body-shots will kill you.
A few moments later, I encountered the love of Jesus disguised as an older Puerto Rican woman.
She was short, had a kind, Mother Teresa smile, and was humbly dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. With some grocery bags in hand and a purse on her shoulder, she stopped, looked at me, and then glanced down at my sign. “Are you really hungry?” she asked. My gut immediately lurched and screamed out “OF COURSE!” but my heart skipped a beat and I stayed silent. In this moment of silence, I pondered on her question, and realized what God was asking me: “Paul! What are you truly hungry for? This bread, or for ME?” It was like a spiritual lightbulb clicking on inside my head.
I was floored – both by this woman’s kindness and compassion, and by my lack of faith in my ONE true provider. God’s message was crystal clear: am I going to continue depending on worldly bread (i.e. my own provisions) or on heavenly bread (i.e. God’s provisions)? Does my treasure lie with God or with the flesh? I quickly snapped back to reality and gratefully told her, “Yes, I really am hungry.”
Her wrinkled hand reached into her grocery bag and she pulled out the plumpest peach I’ve ever seen. As I sunk my unbrushed teeth into that pink glob of sweetness, it tasted as if this very peach was grown by the angelic gardeners in the Garden of Eden. The woman, seeing my gratitude and satisfaction for the scrumptious snack smiled, gently patted me on the back, and asked, “Do you want another?” Maybe it was because of my Japanese American upbringing, but I thankfully declined, and said, “I’m actually really thirsty.” Without a second of hesitation, she reached into her purse and pulled out her makeshift wallet, and gave me one of the few remaining dollars she had left. “No, no, no! I don’t want to take your money,” I insisted. “Take it,” she said sternly. “You need it more than I do.” She practically shoved the dollar into my hand, led me over to the nearby street vendor and bought the coldest bottle of water I’d ever tasted. As I gulped down the icy water, my dry, burning throat of a desert was quenched like a “never-failing stream.” I wondered if this could be the bottled-up version of the living water Christ talked about with the Samaritan woman at the well.
When she saw that my thirst and hunger were momentarily gone, she again reached into her bag and handed me a mango. Then she hugged me, and headed down the street; and yet, she never once mentioned her name or anything about herself. Her selflessness was so apparent that it seemed as if she loved others just as much – or maybe even more – than herself. As I stood there amazed at this woman’s kindness, I began to wonder if she was an angel in disguise. My eyes almost teared up as I thanked God for this woman’s love, and realized that God sent her to provide for me. “Give us today our daily bread” took on a whole new level of significance for me this day.
With my two unwashed hands full of mango and water bottle, and a thankful, up-beat hop in my step, I merrily walked down the pedestrian filled street. About a block down, a man was sprawled across the sidewalk, laying on top of a dirty, raggedy blanket. He had a cup with a few coins in it in front of him, obviously begging for change. The pedestrians had the same visceral reaction to him as they did to me, only worse. He was rendered invisible, worthless, virtually left there to die.
Hesitantly, I sat down next to him, and we smiled at each other. I asked him if he wanted my mango. “Mmrrmr…hrmrmmm..” he mumbled. He could not talk; this man was mute. I reached out my hand with the mango in it, and he took it. Without uttering a single word, he smiled, reached into his grocery bag, and pulled out a styrofoam “to-go” box. He uncovered the box and took out a large hunk of garlic bread and handed it to me. Again, I felt the awesome love of Christ embodied in this man, and I silently praised God. I crunched into the slightly soggy bread, but still it tasted better than a freshly made French baguette because of the love that accompanied it. As we both sat there eating in silence – me munching on my bread and he chewing on his mango – I understood God’s intention of naming Philadelphia the “city of brotherly love.”
With both of us happy and content, we smiled at each other, and somehow knew that God was smiling back.