This past Sunday after helping with church tear-down, our family decided to go to Erik’s Deli for lunch. I parked the car and was explaining the pagan symbols of Easter to the kids as we walked towards our destination — right past a homeless guy sitting with his cardboard sign. Inside the restaurant, I told Kay, “I’m going to give that guy a few bucks,” and walked back out.
I greeted him, squatting down to get onto his level. I handed him four dollar bills, saying I hoped it would help him. “Oh yeah,” he said thankfully.
“My name’s Jon,” I said, extending my hand.
“I’m Richard,” he said. Still holding my hand, he looked intently at me. “Are you a Christian?” he asked.
“I’m trying to follow Jesus, so yeah, I guess so,” I replied.
“I thought so. I could see it in your eyes. I’m a Christian too.” Then he added, “That makes us brothers.”
“That’s right,” I agreed in amazement. “So what’s going on?”
“Oh, the doctor says I have neuropathy in my legs. I can’t stand for very long. That’s why I can’t keep a job. I’m trying to get SDI,” (State Disability Insurance), “but they say it can take a year for all the red tape.”
“Are you from around here?” I asked.
“Yeah, I grew up here,” Richard said. “I went to Oak Grove High School.” He named his middle school, and tried to remember the name of his elementary and kindergarten. He was once a child who never imagined this future.
“So you’ve seen a lot of change, I bet,” I commented.
“Oh, yeah. All the highways, 85 and 87. When I came back from Arizona, my parents said I would be surprised.”
“Do you have family in the area?” I asked.
“My parents are dead,” Richard replied. “I have two siblings, one in Florida and one in Santa Rosa. But they’re struggling to get by themselves, so I have to take care of myself. And this,” he said waving his cardboard sign, “is the only thing I could think of.”
“Wow. That’s rough,” I said.
“Not really,” he smiled. “I get enough to eat. And I keep a little garden.”
“A garden?” I asked, surprised.
“Yeah, in an open lot. I want to grow tomatoes.”
“Oh, tomatoes grow like crazy if you get it right,” I commented.
“Yup. So right now I’m just trying to collect enough for the tomatoes,” he said.
“Well, I’d better get back in to my family. Say,” I said, remembering how Rich recently wrote about how the heart of God is close to the poor, “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll pray for you, if you pray for me.”
“Sure,” he replied. But he surprised me by taking it a step further: “I’ll pray for you right now.”
And right there, he prayed for God to bless me. I laid my hand on him and prayed that God would provide for him and cut through the red tape.
Back in Erik’s Deli, I related all this to my family over lunch. Then Kay took the initiative. “Kids,” she asked, “what do you need for gardening?” They tossed out some answers. “What else?” she quizzed them. And finally, “Do you have some money with you? Would you be willing to help this man?”
So having finished lunch, we walked out together. Richard was still sitting there with his sign. I squatted down again and introduced him to my family. “We heard about your garden,” Kay said. “What do you still need? A trowel, or any equipment?” she asked.
“Oh no, I have a shovel,” he said. “What I need is the soil, and the plants themselves.”
“The hardware store is just around the corner,” Kay said. “Would it be helpful if we took you shopping for those things?”
“That would be great, then I don’t have to do this,” he said, excitedly packing his cardboard sign and cushion into his backpack.
As we walked to the hardware store, Erin said, “Now we have something to share with the Jesus Dojo.”
“What church do you belong to?” Richard asked. I told him, and he said, “I belong to [such and such] church.” (Unfortunately, I don’t remember what he said. Was it Blossom Valley Bible Church? “I’m friends with the pastor. I see him pretty regularly, and he brings me things like socks.”
I said we were also trying to start something in our home. “You mean a Bible study?” he asked. “Not exactly,” I said, “though we would look at the Bible. More like trying to figure out how to live what it says, like doing things to help people in our neighborhood.”
“My church does a monthly party for the homeless,” he told me. “They get us together in someone’s home and serve some good food, like soup. One time we had homemade lasagna! And then we watch a movie.”
“That’s neat!” I said. “That’s the kind of thing I want to learn.”
Meanwhile we found our way to the gardening section. Kay picked out a nice bag of soil for him, asking the kids to wrangle it into the shopping cart. “Do you need a watering can?” she asked him, pointing out some next to the soil. “These are kind of big. Can you manage something this size? Do you have a place where you can keep it?”
He lit up again. “Sure, I can stash it. That would be great!”
Then it was on to the plants, where he hemmed and hawed over different varieties of tomato plants before picking out one with Kay’s help. “Would you like anything else?” she inquired. Well, if we didn’t mind, green beans would be nice, he said. Kay kept asking, “Anything else?” Richard kept thinking of just one more plant, and the kids scurried around helping to locate them. Tomatoes, green beans, chili peppers, and cilantro: “I’m going to make salsa!” he said with a laugh. He explained that he shares whatever he grows with other homeless people.
We rang it all up, along with a couple of other items like a trap to keep the rats away. It came to $50, which the kids paid for with their allowance money. Richard thanked us, I gave him a hug, and he practically skipped away with the shopping cart of gardening goodies. Kay said, “That was more than I was planning on, but really, it’s nothing to us. It would have taken him a long time to get fifty dollars, and he probably wouldn’t have gotten all that he wanted.”
Back in our car, I asked, “Kids, what did you learn in today’s Jesus Dojo?”
“That homeless people can be quite nice,” Erin said.
“That here’s this homeless guy, and he’s a gardener, how weird is that,” Trevor said.
“That it feels really good to help someone,” Shelly said.
I went on and asked, “Trick question: Who did we help today?”
“God,” said Trevor.
“That’s right,” I said. “Jesus said whatever we do to help someone, we are doing for him. Pastor Dave taught that Jesus didn’t say, ‘It’s like you’re doing it for me,’ or ‘It’s as if you’re doing it for me.” Jesus said, ‘You’re doing it for me.’ We don’t understand how, but that doesn’t make it less true.
“So we helped Jesus. Who else did we help?” I continued.
“That man, Richard,” they said.
“Who else?” I pressed.
They were stumped, so I answered: “His friends. Remember, he’s going to share what grows in his garden.”
“Oh yeah,” the kids said.
++ Thank you for the privilege of letting us experience this together, as a family ++