Revelations: A heart for the homeless
When I lived near downtown Atlanta, it was common to see homeless people walking the streets.
At night, it was equally common to see them bundled under a blanket or garbage bag, sleeping on a random church stoop or park bench.
I remember the first time I saw a homeless person.
I was about 13 years old, and it was my first experience seeing someone wrapped in a torn, black trash bag.
I walked by him as if he didn't exist, trying desperately to avoid eye contact.
The man's half-naked body and desperate eyes still haunt me.
It would be years before I ever made any sort of attempt to see the homeless or care about them as human beings.
I remember before I became a Christ follower and sadly, many years after that feeling bothered and burdened by people asking me to spare some change all the time - especially the repeat offenders.
It really got to me some days. I was angry at them for making me feel guilty for not giving.
I was angry they didn't remain invisible.
I imagine that Ernest Rydolph Jr., a former alcoholic and someone who spent more than two decades living on the streets, has probably met more than his share of people like me.
While interviewing him about his recovery and near six-year anniversary of sobriety, he told me how difficult it was at times to see people walk by him when he was homeless and drunk and look away.
"They'd all be smiling and laughing, and then they'd see me and everyone would go silent," he said.
I didn't want to tell him, but I know I have been guilty of similar behavior.
It wasn't until I started going to St. Paul's Presbyterian in Atlanta and observed the church's love and passion for the homeless community in the neighborhood that I slowly started to change my heart.
The church's then pastor, The Rev. Chris Robins (yes, that's his real name), gave a sermon one day about reaching out to those who need us, and eliminating our arrogant need to want to believe we're better than someone sleeping on the street or begging for money.
In that sermon, I remember him saying these words, "We all have been beggars at one time in our lives, we just don't stand on the corner with a sign in our hands."
He reminded the congregation that we have all begged someone for something: their time or money or resources; or we've called one of our friends pretending to be interested in their day for a few moments only so we can unload our crappy situation on them and beg for their advice.
"At least the homeless people we see on the street have the decency of holding a sign up and directly asking others for what they want," he said.
Robins changed my entire view on people living on the streets. He reminded me that I didn't know their situation or how they ended up there. I couldn't make a judgement about why they weren't working - all I can do is try to meet their needs when I could.
In the weeks following that sermon, every time I saw a homeless person holding up a sign, I saw my face - not theirs.
And now that I've had some time to really get to know Rydolph, I realize more than ever that anyone, even me, could end up on the streets in the same situation if just a few of our regular safety nets fell away.
Rydolph's story reminds me daily of how capable I am of both falling down and getting up again.
And how truly awful it would be to walk through life each day - and know that no one sees you.
Jennifer Preyss is a reporter for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at 361-580-6535 or firstname.lastname@example.org or @jenniferpreyss on Twitter.