School Daze Urban Experience

Last Friday our day began with an urban experience. We met in our classroom with Deborah Lloyd. She and her husband Ken are very involved with the homeless population in Portland, though she never used the word homeless. She referred to the people they love and serve as “our friends without houses.” Deborah explained their ministry, gave us a brief primer on the people we would meet, and provided instructions for our morning activity. In a nut shell, we were to walk about downtown Portland with a $5 bill to give someone and engage them in conversation.

We were not there to give them information. We were not to advise or instruct. We were not to take on any posture or language that would position us as superior in any way. We were to look them in the eye, shake their hand, introduce ourselves, and hopefully hear their story.

My friend John and I left Pioneer Square and headed for the library. It was a dreary rainy day and “our friends without houses” were scarce. As John and I parted ways I spotted a young man selling newspapers on a corner. From the size of the stack he carried and the time of day, I suspected they were papers sold for fundraising purposes rather than an edition of The Oregonian. “Would you like to buy a paper?” “Sure, tell me about this.” I replied. The young (20 something) man explained that the proceeds go to support the needs of the homeless population in Portland, and by selling them he and his wife were eligible to sleep indoors that night.

I gave him my $5, shook his hand and introduced myself. He adjusted his inventory and with a firm grasp of my hand locked eyes and said, “My name is Sean. Nice to meet you.” I don’t know how to explain it but he changed right before my eyes. Sean seemed to stand taller, speak more confidently and relax all at the same time. “Did you grow up in Portland?” I asked. This question opened the door to hear his story. He was a construction worker from Connecticut who arrived less than two years ago. In the same week his initial project was completed he wrecked his car. That’s when the dominoes began to topple.

I’ll be honest, I’ve been shmoozed and scammed by a number of panhandlers but this was not one of them. Sean was articulate and self-aware. He uses the computer at the library to scour craigslist every day for job postings and to check his email for any responses. He knows he’s competing with others who have more education but he doesn’t give up. Sean spoke of his dependance upon God to meet the needs of he and his wife, who happened to be cleaning a house that morning. I affirmed his faith. We talked about how fragile we all are and the fact that many people are only one step away from his situation. He asked about me, where I was from and what I was doing there. “I’m here for school and had time to explore downtown.” Then the conversation ran it’s course and with a final shake of hands we parted ways.

Later our cohort met in groups to process our experiences. Sean lacked a social network. He and his wife were alone. I thought about how fortunate I am to have such a loving and large group of friends and family. For that is really the only difference I could see between the two of us.



8 thoughts on “School Daze Urban Experience

  1. Darrell,
    I know it’s hard to explain these kinds of conversations. Who would have known I would be doing this as part of my career?
    When I ask people to share their stories…it is overwhelming and heartbreaking. I have told my parents countless times since working at the Mission how very thankful I am that I was born into the family that I was blessed with. The prayers that my family prayed for me and still do are what brought me this far. I too know that there is a great need to help them connect with social networks. They are out there…but it really takes time to track them down.
    Thank you for sharing! My nephew lives out there and works with the homeless…and poor.

    • Brenda, I’ll never forget my encounter with Sean. I’d love to help the college students I work with to have an opportunity like that. Is there any possibility of that where you are?

  2. Hi Darrel – I just got back from investing half my day in someone with a “story.” This was a blind encounter with someone who had a need (money) and whose life was now experiencing the inevitable consequence of many poor choices. I always struggle with determining the best response and try to at least treat them with respect and dignity in a situation where they have lost both. For me the hardest thing to give up is the big chunk of time it inevitably unfolds into.

    • I think you’re incredibly good at extending care, respect and dignity. I also think your church is benefiting from your example.

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