I had been taking my dad to a Hardee’s for karaoke night, and realized that the church group who were regulars reacted negatively when a homeless person or person of color came in.
So, I started greeting each person of color or homeless person. I would introduce myself, explain the karaoke sign-up and tease them that they couldn’t stay if they didn’t sing. One church leader whispered, “Make sure they don’t sit in the ‘white’ section.”
I was taken aback and said, “I thought you were Christian.” He defended that he was and that it was a harmless joke. I said, “If it is harmless, say it out loud.” We didn’t speak for weeks, then he came over to me one night and thanked me; he said he had searched his soul and realized he needed to change. I was pleasantly shocked.
It was hard for me to sit with this group week after week, but my dad enjoyed singing, and my mom and I enjoyed listening.
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Then I met a guy who had lost his job and was facing homelessness. I bought him dinner so Hardee’s would let him stay inside. Another church member whispered, “Be careful he doesn’t steal your purse.” Another said that he could afford a cell phone so why would I buy him a meal? Another asked me to make sure he wasn’t drinking. I would usually respond with something that wasn’t very nice, like, “He needs his cell phone to make his drug deals,” or, “I bet you’d drink too if you were homeless.”
I wasted my breath trying to explain that “there but for the grace of …” I got glares, and some complained to management and they would kick out the homeless. This went on for several years.
I was judgmental about these so-called Christians, and, somewhere along the way, I started questioning my own intentions. I started getting to know these men. I’d talk to them longer, and sit with them while they ate.
The first guy I’d made friends with – Jeff Adams – had been a welder, lost his job, missed his rent, got kicked out, had no address to get benefits, couldn’t get assistance, ended up using and selling drugs and working with a woman who sold herself.
They slept under the bridge on Loudon Avenue for a few years. When it got really cold they would stay at the Sportsman Motel for a few hours. He’d come in on Saturday nights and I’d feed him and his friend, and we’d talk. He never asked me for money.
One of the church guys came over and started talking to Jeff one night. He sat down and they got to know each other. The next time Jeff came in, this guy got up and bought Jeff his dinner and talked to him a while. Over time, another church guy offered to buy one of the homeless men a meal, After a while, they stopped asking Hardee’s to kick out the homeless.
I learned a lot from this. Writing a check to the Hope Center is good. Buying a meal for a stranger is better. Sitting down and breaking bread with a stranger and getting to know about their life is something you can’t explain to someone who’s never done it.
I still find myself judging these church folks about many things, but now I know that a part of it is that no one ever showed them how easy it is to reach out to someone they think is very different from themselves, but really isn’t when you take the time to get to know them.
After meeting Jeff five years ago, I ran into him at the Dollar Tree, and he told me he appreciated me listening to him and treating him with respect through those tough years.
He was in a Hope Center apartment, had been clean for over a year and just started a new job.
Reach Sarah Moore Katzenmaier, a Lexington media consultant at firstname.lastname@example.org