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.