This is the story of my encounter with a homeless man that changed my life. Most names have been changed in respect to the privacy of service providers.
It all started one night as we were leaving church. My wonderful wife has a tremendous heart, which I covet. She is a giver to the core. She’s the kind of person who literally gives the clothes off her back, takes jewelry off her neck and wrists and food from our refrigerator. Every time I’ve wanted to get upset at how much she gives I have to consider how little I give and it makes me repentant. Having had her brother live homeless for a while caused her to become particularly sensitive to homelessness.
We were pulling into the church one evening, headed to the back parking lot and my wife noticed a person lying in a makeshift bed on the ground in the bushes near the church. Brought nearly to tears, she couldn’t dismiss the image from her mind. All that evening, she kept mentioning the person in the bushes. After service, we got in our car and she said to me, “Let’s drive around again and see if the person in the bushes is still there. If he or she is, I want to take them something to eat.” At that time, we were distributing some food from the church’s pantry to persons who were in need of immediate assistance. We circled the block and found the person still there. We didn’t stop because we didn’t want to make the person suspicious or self-conscious. Immediately returning to the church, my wife gathered a bag full of food from the pantry that could sustain this person for a few days. We got back in the car and headed back to the bushes.
Not knowing how this person would respond, I told my wife, “You stay in the car and I’ll go out.” I stepped out of the car, walked toward to makeshift bed and called out, “Excuse me. Excuse me.”
This older gentleman unwrapped himself from the bedding and came toward me, clothed in his hat and coat. I told him that my wife and I wanted to bless him with some food. Yes, I admit, I probably didn’t deserve any credit whatsoever. By this time, I heard the dinging of the car. Looking over my shoulder, I saw my wife coming into the clearing where this gentleman and me were standing. I introduced myself and my wife to him. He told us that his name was “Joe”. We told him that we were from the church on the corner. He said that he’d been there several times and knew our pastor. Joe gave us big hugs, showing obvious gratitude for the food we had given him. We invited him to church and he agreed to come.
The following Sunday, sure enough, he was there – sitting in the back. My wife and I got to speak with him after service. He seemed surprised that we remembered his name. I was certainly surprised that he remembered ours.
Ever since then, we couldn’t pass that spot without looking for Joe.
Not long after, I found myself reminiscing on a recent self-evaluation where I cited that I needed to become better at caring for people not only in the immediate moment but carrying their plight to completion – helping them get to that point that things actually get better. I remembered the revelation of how easy it is for me to pray for someone in the immediate moment – then forget about their pain the next day. I wanted God to work on my heart and help me to care enough to carry people in my heart.
Every few weeks I’d see Joe at service. We stayed acquainted. I made sure he didn’t forget me and my wife’s names. I prayed for him often – that God would protect him and provide for him. Several times I wondered what his story was… what brought him to this stage of life. Yeah, this guy was actually on my heart.
Our church does wonderful things in the community. For Thanksgiving, like many other churches, we provide food for persons in need. Joe came to the church on the Saturday before Thanksgiving to receive the gifts we were giving and to share in the Thanksgiving service that we held. It was a GREAT service. Afterward, I got a chance to sit and talk with Joe. He shared with me that he was going to give the food he was receiving to a couple of households that help him out so that they could cook the food and give him some of it. He knew that he didn’t have any way of preparing the food himself so he needed to share it if he was going to eat any of it.
Finally, I felt comfortable enough to ask him the one question that had been bouncing around in my head. “Why aren’t you staying in a shelter?” Joe began to explain to me that all of his ID had been lost or stolen and you can’t stay in a shelter without ID. He said he tried to get his ID but found out he needed his birth certificate – and he lost that as well. So he just gave up.
This was the moment for me. This was when it became clear that I was changing. I didn’t feel a hope or wish that someone would help Joe. I felt like this man was now my responsibility. Having worked in a homeless shelter and recovery center before, I had an idea of what I was getting into. I knew that there would be a chance that I could get this guy all the help he needed and get him into a nice residence – and he would end up back on the streets. But, I also knew that this was what I had prayed for. I wanted to be the hands and feet of Jesus and reach out to someone in need. Joe was my man at that pool of Bethesda and I needed to be Jesus, motivating him to rise up and walk.
We made a date for that Monday. I would meet him at the church and take him to wherever we needed to go to get him on his feet. Joe expressed his pessimism about my offer. “Don’t be like everybody else,” he said, telling me about the several times people offered to help him and didn’t show up. I assured him that I would be there when I promised.
I arrived at the church early because I really didn’t know what to do. I knew that my pastor’s wife – Sister Houston (yeah… I’m Pentecostal. You know we call everyone without an official ecclesiastical title “brother” or “sister”) had recently worked with a gentleman that needed assistance and may have some advice. She recommended a city agency called Second Chances. This organization is designed to give a new opportunity to people that have been incarcerated or have somehow fallen through the cracks of society. Homeless persons like Joe qualified for their assistance. We started there.
When we arrived at the City Hall Building where their office is located, we were told by the security officers that Joe and I would have to wait downstairs until someone from Second Chances’ office came down and escorted us upstairs. You see… you cannot even go upstairs to a city office without an ID card – and Joe didn’t have ID.
A nice gentleman came and escorted us to their office. When we entered, I ran into “Julie.” She and I served together in music ministry some years ago and had a good friendship. She is a great Christian who loved helping people. I didn’t realize that she worked for this city agency. And, sure enough, she was the person that took Joe’s case.
We sat in her small office and Joe began answering the interview questions. I started noticing something that I hadn’t paid attention to before. Joe was pretty sharp. I mean… when I thought of homeless people I often thought of someone of lesser intelligence; someone who wouldn’t be able to do quick math in their head; someone who wouldn’t remember a lot of details. But Joe! This dude was on in! At first Julie was asking the questions and kinda’ leaning to me for the answers. Soon we both realized that Joe had it. He remembered dates of incidences that I would’ve probably forgotten. He was doing quick math and calculating time. I started seeing a glimpse of who this man must have been before his life took the turns that it took.
Julie made some calls and connected with some other agencies. Soon, she gave us some instruction. She told us places to go and people to ask for who would give us the things we needed. Joe needed food, clothes and shelter. He also needed some way of sustaining his life. But, most importantly, he needed some ID. Julie put us on the track. It was late morning by the time we left but we felt like it was time well spent.
When we left the Second chances office we went directly to the Department of Human Services office. Now, Julie had spoken with that office already and told us that “Bill” was the one to see but he wasn’t available and she hadn’t been able to get him on the phone. But “Sally” would help us when we got there and she’d get us in to see Bill. Well, when we got to that office, we discovered that Sally was actually at another office, but Bill was there. However, Bill was headed to lunch and wouldn’t be able to see us until mid afternoon. It was a “hurry up and wait” kind of situation.So Joe and I went to investigate the Salvation Army to see if Joe could spend the night there. I really didn’t want Joe to have to spend another single night in the bushes. When we got there, we were informed that Joe would have to have ID of some sort – either DMV or City ID. We also found out that Joe’s stay would only be for 3 nights. After which, he would have to relocate to another facility. They no longer offered long-term or 30-day stays. However, they did provide meals. So, a person that was staying at their shelter could receive breakfast and dinner at the facility if they came at the right times. We also found out that one of the pre-requisites for staying at their shelter was that you had to be “clean and sober.” If you came and they found that you had been drinking, you would be expelled. And they do test you to see if you had been drinking.
Now, this was a potential problem for Joe. You see, most homeless people use alcohol – not merely for recreation, but for survival. Alcohol takes the edge off their situation; it dulls the reality that they don’t have a place to sleep other than under a bridge, in an alley or in some bushes. It also dulls the senses so that they don’t feel the cold weather as acutely as they would if they were sober. Alcohol also helps them not think about the painful issues that influenced their lives and led them to the stage of homelessness. So, you see, alcohol is like a friend to the homeless. And I could tell by Joe’s distinct aroma that he indulged in alcohol.
When Joe and I got back in the car, we started talking about the importance of him abstaining from alcohol while he was staying at the Salvation Army – if we were able to get him in there. He assured me that he would be able to do it. I didn’t know if I could rest in that assurance or not – but I didn’t have a choice.
We went back to Bill’s office. We had about an hour before he would be able to see us. So we sat and waited… and waited… and waited. We read books, watched TV, talked… and waited. We talked about Joe’s family, my family, Joe’s childhood, my hometown, the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday… any and everything we could think of so that Joe wouldn’t get frustrated and say, “I give up.”During that conversation, I discovered that Joe has a stepmother that lives right across the street from the bushes where he was sleeping. He also has a brother that lives about 15 minutes away. Joe even has a daughter who is married and lives in the neighboring city. Joe became a father at age 14. He never was able to maintain employment because he was epileptic and subject to seizures. He has a bone condition – Osteoporosis – which has led to two broken hips and a knee fracture. As a result, Joe has rods in both hips and a pin in his knee. Joe walks with a limp and doesn’t have good balance. Seeing him walk, one would easily assume that he is intoxicated.
Finally, we were called in to Bill’s office. Now, I was expecting that great and mighty things would happen. I thought that this was the place that held the keys to everything Joe needed. Bill would help Joe get into a shelter, get clothing, get food, get food stamps, get medical assistance. I was dreaming.
Bill was a kind gentleman. He gathered Joe’s information. As Bill went through his computer archives he found that Joe was already in the system. They had qualified him for food stamps before. They even had a copy of his old ID card, food stamps card and birth certificate on record. Oh, I was about to jump out of my seat and do a dance! Bill ordered a new copy of Joe’s birth certificate to be sent to Joe’s stepmother’s home. Then he told us about the City ID card – which he said would be a lot better than the temporary ID card that we were told about earlier from Julie. Bill made some calls and put a package together so that we could go the next morning and get the ID card made.
Then came the surprise. This was all that Bill was going to be able to do from his office. We would have to go to several other offices to get the other things that were needed. While Bill had gotten the ball rolling, we would have to run behind it to make the journey successful.
As we left his office, I started thinking about something. How could a person who doesn’t have a car do all the things that it takes to no longer be homeless?
When Joe came and met me that morning, he had his “Cadillac” with him – his shopping cart that he pushes around all the time, collecting bottles and cans – especially any bottle that had any left over alcohol in it. He also used it to collect any discarded food items so that he could eat it when he got hungry. We parked the cart behind the church when we left that Monday morning. It broke my heart that I had to bring him back to that cart on Monday evening and watch him stroll back down the street to the bushes and sleep one more night under that tent.
With renewed vigor and determination, I met Joe at the church that next morning. I had been praying for wisdom and direction. The challenges became clearer to me. But my goal was ever before me. By the time I was done, Joe wasn’t going to be living in the bushes. He’d be staying at some shelter somewhere, some housing facility, some safe place… but not the bushes.
Our first stop for the day was Hardee’s. Like the previous day, I wanted to feed Joe. I wanted to restore within him the value of starting the day with a hot breakfast. He liked the sausage biscuit with egg & cheese. He liked it with coffee – I like it with orange juice. It was a good time to talk about our lives and for me to get more acquainted with Joe. The day before, after leaving the Department of Human Services where we met with Bill, Joe and I went to Alice Mae’s Restaurant for a late lunch. While we ate (Joe couldn’t believe how much I was eating. I actually surprised myself too. I was hungry!) Joe told me about his childhood. He explained the effect epilepsy and osteoporosis had on his life. He called and spoke with his daughter and his brother. So, sitting at a meal was our time of bonding. This Tuesday morning would be no different.
After breakfast, we went to the City Hall building and waited for our escort to take us up to The Office to End Homelessness. The receptionist received us and began to gather Joe’s information. During our interaction I sensed that she was a person of faith and later discovered that she was a minister of the Gospel. Once she gathered all the information that she needed, she escorted Joe and me back to the first floor to an office where Joe was able to get a City of Norfolk ID Card.
As Joe took his ID photo, I saw the weight of hopelessness lifting from his shoulders. When the City agent handed Joe his card, it was like a wonderful Christmas gift. I saw a smile on his face that I hadn’t seen before. I was fighting back the tears. You see, without certified ID, you can’t really prove who you are. You don’t exist in the system. It’s easy to become homeless without ID. But with an ID card, Joe could get off the street. He could get in a shelter. As a matter of fact, we didn’t need an escort to go back upstairs in the City Hall building. As we walked out of the City ID office headed back up to the Office To End Homelessness, Joe kept saying “Thank You. You really came through.” I just assured him that I was doing what Jesus would want me to do.
When we got back upstairs, we met with “Keli.” We sat and talked at length about Joe’s case. I realized that I had become a case-worker for my friend. We looked at what the goals were for Joe’s case. We talked about what had been done previously before Joe became homeless. We realized that he was obviously qualified to received government assistance – including disability. However, he was denied. When he received the notice that he had been denied, Joe didn’t pursue it any further.
Keli explained to us that the government office has a practice of denying a certain percentage of the disability claims that they receive regardless of whether the applicants are qualified or not. If an applicant appeals the denial then the office will take a serious look at the application. However, most people don’t know this. Instead, they will either assume that the denial is final and not move on it any further; or they will reapply, which puts them in that category of first time applicants again and set them up to be denied once more. Keli told us that we can expect to be denied – but to appeal the denial. She noted that the fact that Joe had previously received General Assistance payments was a good indicator that he was qualified for disability.
She further assisted us with clarifying the goals for Joe’s case. He needed to be examined by a physician to establish medical records. Some time ago Joe had his medical records from the physician that did his surgeries but all of that information was lost when he was evicted from an earlier residence. He needed to see a social worker and get a case established. He needed to get into a shelter right away. He needed to get to another city office and apply for food stamps. He needed to get into a rehab facility to assist him with getting clean and sober from alcoholism. With all of this done, there would be the possibility that he could get into a city housing facility where he could be self sufficient.
Lofty goals? Most definitely.
When we left Keli’s office, we went to the Ghent Area Ministry. This place provided a lot of assistance for homeless persons. But the one thing that Joe needed from them that day was clothing. You see, Joe’s clothes were soiled and tattered. We were headed into the dead of winter so Joe needed sufficient clothing for the upcoming weather. He needed clothing that would give him a better outlook on his life. We found just what he needed. They had warm outdoor clothing. They had nice dress clothing. They had great winter coats. Joe got the amount of clothing that they allotted for each homeless person that came through – a coat, a couple of pairs of pants, a couple of shirts, a couple of sweaters, a pair of shoes, etc. We left with a large bag of items that this wonderful ministry gave Joe.
It was now my turn to give. I took Joe to Wal-Mart. We found him some comfortable underwear, socks, washcloths, a bath towel, a toothbrush and toothpaste, some deodorant, and a comfortable hiking backpack to carry his things in. Being homeless and navigating the shelters requires mobility. You need to be able to move all of your belongings quickly.
Our next move was getting Joe qualified for food stamps. We were told to go to the office at the Park Place Community Center. When we arrived there, we found out that they actually only give out the applications but you have to turn in the application at the Little Creek office of the Department of Human Services – which is clear on the other side of town. As we walked back to my car, we asked each other how in the world a homeless person with no car and no help would ever be able to navigate this system and go to all of these offices. It would be so easy to just give up.
We arrived at the Little Creek office. This was a huge facility where hundreds of people were seeking assistance. After asking enough questions we found out that we would not be helped that day. But our best chance was to come back on the following morning before the doors open and be one of the first people in line. That way, we would be seen that same day. Well, at least we had a game plan and knew what to expect.
So, we left there and headed to the Salvation Army shelter. With Joe’s new City ID card, he was received as a guest for the night. However, his stay at the Salvation Army would only last through Thanksgiving night. That Friday morning, he would need a new place to stay.
Joe packed what he needed for that night into his new backpack and left the rest of his belongings in my car since he didn’t need to carry the extra weight around. It was so satisfying to know that this night, Joe would not be sleeping in the bushes. As I was about to get in my car and Joe was headed into the line for the shelter, he stopped in his tracks and turned around. He put the bags down and said, “Come here.” As I walked toward him, Joe opened his arms and gave me this huge hug. I fought back the tears once again as he said, “Thank you. God bless you. I don’t know where I’d be if it wasn’t for you.” I thought to myself, “no more bushes for you, man.”
Later, I picked up my wife from work and we talked about the events of the day. She shared with me how at that Thanksgiving service at our church, Joe told her that he didn’t think he would be alive much longer. His view on his life was very pessimistic. I was so moved to know that God was using me to help this man and to change the conditions of his life. But, I was also very concerned about the rest of the week.
You see I didn’t have the opportunity to get him into the Union Mission, which offered a 30-day shelter. Also, I knew that what Joe needed was a 6-month rehabilitation facility where he could be in a different environment. The Salvation Army offered that service but the Union Mission didn’t. So, it would work toward the long-term goal to get Joe into the Salvation Army records. But the thing that made me most concerned was the fact that Sharon and I had a family trip for the Thanksgiving weekend and would be leaving town on Wednesday evening. So, Joe’s family was going to have to intervene and get him into the shelter at the Union Mission or take him into their homes. But if they hadn’t intervened to this point and had allowed him to be on the street, why would they do it now? This had me very nervous. It raised the very real possibility that Joe could end up back under those bushes on Friday night after Thanksgiving.
Prior to this day, Joe and I had always met up at 9:30AM. But on this Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we needed to meet up at 6:45 AM so we could get near the front of the line that started forming around 7:00. We grabbed breakfast from McDonalds and got a spot in the line. We weren’t far from the front.
We stood there until the outer lobby area we were in was crowded. As more and more people crowded in, more and more attitudes crowded in. Persons with overbearing personalities began to enter. Young ladies in their pajamas began to enter. People who wanted to maneuver to the front of the line began to enter. People who were willing to challenge the security officer began to enter. Once, the security officer threatened to put the entire crowd outside and clear the outer lobby because of the people that wanted to challenge his authority. Sensing that it wasn’t a good idea to pull that authority card, the officer managed to control the crowd while we remained in the lobby.
Eventually, we were permitted to enter the inner lobby – and in the order we had entered the building at that. Thank you, Jesus! Joe and I stood there in line until we were all called into another room. Soon, Joe’s name was called. We went in to an office with “Brad.” He was a very nice, seasoned gentleman. We talked at length. He sternly encouraged Joe to get registered to vote and to exercise his right to vote as an African-American. We talked about the historic election of President Barack Obama and what it meant to the African-American community. Brad told us stories of his time in the military. We talked about the state of young people in America. Brad was a talker. But he was also a man of action. He approved Joe for Food Stamps. Joe’s card would be ready on that Friday.
When we left Brad’s office, Joe was a happy man. He could see that things were starting to come together. I was happy too, but I was also a bit nervous because I knew we were headed into a weekend when I wasn’t going to be in town and Joe was going to need help. We went to Joe’s stepmother’s house to drop off Joe’s extra clothes and belongings that he didn’t want to carry around in his backpack. This was my first face-to-face encounter with her. She was a kindly assertive woman. She seemed genuinely appreciative for what was being done for her stepson.
Once we left there, we left for the Salvation Army shelter. Joe and I had a nice long talk on the way there. We talked about him staying sober. We talked about him calling his family and trying to spend Thanksgiving Day with them. We talked about him trying to get in the Union Mission by the weekend for the 30-day stay. I wanted to make sure Joe was prepared for success while I was away. I also wanted him prepared in case of disappointment. I really didn’t know what to expect. After another brotherly hug, I pulled off and Joe headed in to his residence for the evening.
Joe had given me his brother, stepmother and daughter’s telephone numbers. As my family and I rode out of Virginia Beach that afternoon on our way to our holiday gathering in Georgia, I made several calls. I called Julie at Second Chances and Keli at the Office to End Homelessness to let them know how things had gone and where we were in the process. I told them about my concerns for the upcoming weekend. They both made it clear to me that I had done all I could do that week and that we had accomplished much more than most people accomplish in much more time. They told me that it would take a while for Joe’s relationship with his family members to be restored but that I needed to empower his family to help him make the transition from homelessness.
Next, I called Joe’s stepmother, brother and daughter. I informed each of them of our accomplishments that week. I informed them that I was headed out of town and made them aware of Joe’s challenges as of Friday morning. I encouraged them to take the responsibility to get Joe to the Union Mission that weekend and get him into their 30-day shelter program. After speaking with everyone I could speak with, all I could do was pray that the Holy Spirit would move on the hearts of everyone involved and that they would help Joe to the best of their ability.
You see, Joe’s story wasn’t the story of the typical American. Joe’s situation evolved over several years. His father was a merchant seaman. His mother was an alcoholic. When Joe’s father was out at sea, Joe’s mother had a difficult time dealing with being alone. Joe’s father would come home for brief periods of time and then be gone again. While the money was good, the family unit suffered. Joe’s mother stayed intoxicated most of the time. While Joe and his brother were very young, his mother introduced them to alcohol. They became alcoholics as children. Their mother encouraged them to drink. Joe was very smart in school. He always had good grades and a sharp mind. At age 14, Joe became a father with one of the 16 year-old girls in the neighborhood.
Battling epilepsy made his life difficult. He was prone to seizures. His grandparents, being in a financial position to make sure that he never had to work, became unwitting enablers. Joe never held a job for more than a couple of months. He also has osteoporosis. Because of a couple of common falls and tumbles, Joe had broken both hips. So, he never developed the sense of responsibility that befalls most adults.
Eventually, her physician informed Joe’s mother that she had to stop drinking or she would die. But she could not break the addiction – and the doctor’s prediction came to pass. Joe and his brother were left in their home without a mother and with a traveling father.
Soon, his father married a woman from an island off the coast of Africa and brought her home. This woman now had the task of entering the life of these two young men – Joe, the older of the two, was only 8 years younger then her. She was the “stepmother.” Shortly thereafter, Joe’s father died. After realizing the difficulty of having two grown alcoholic men in her new home, the widowed stepmother told the young men that they needed to start working and help or move out on their own. The younger brother did both.
Joe, however, moved in with a friend who didn’t require him to work and pay rent. Joe was getting government assistance because of his disability and used it to contribute to the household. After a few years, he could no longer live with this friend. He moved in with a young lady. In lieu of rent, Joe helped out with watching her kids. A few years later, she was evicted. Joe moved in with another guy. A few years later this guys lost his residence. This pattern went on for the rest of Joe’s life.
Finally, at 58 years old, Joe had no one else to live with. His alcohol addiction destroyed the relationships he had with his family. His brother had become a weekend drinker – staying sober during the workweek so that he could support his own wife and kids. Joe’s brother’s children didn’t really know Joe because he didn’t spend sober time around them. Joe didn’t establish a relationship with his daughter. She knew him but didn’t have the kind of relationship where she could bring him into her home with her husband and kids. Joe’s stepmother had tried again to let Joe live with her but it didn’t last. You see, she worked the overnight shift and had come home a few mornings to find her door wide open with Joe gone from the house – and later returning in a drunken stupor. Other mornings she had come home to find Joe and some of drinking buddies from the street corner in the house. Eventually, she put Joe out.
So, this is how we got here. After burning relationship after relationship because of an addiction from his youth, Joe was now a homeless man with very little hope.
I remember listening to – then, President-elect Barack Obama as he encouraged this nation to find a way to help our own communities. I remember the story of the Good Samaritan who took out the time to rescue someone who was of another culture but in need of help. I remember all the times in the scriptures when Jesus made himself accessible to the crowd and would stop in the midst of his hectic schedule to help people. I remember the stories of how Jesus would be on his way to an important appointment but would deviate from his agenda to tend to the need of someone whose path he happened to cross.
How can we as Christians be too busy to deviate from our schedules and help people in our communities? How can we be the body of Christ and not literally work to make this world better?
I sat in two funerals toward the end of the year and saw how these two people affected so many lives. They lived lives that truly outlived them. They did things that lived on in the people they helped. I decided that I want to do the same. I know that God didn’t just put me here to take care of Michael. I was placed on this earth to make it better. I was born to help Joe.
Got in the car to head back to Virginia. I couldn’t wait to start calling Joe’s family and see where things stood. I was so incredibly thrilled to find out that Joe’s brother and daughter had combined their efforts and got Joe into the Union Mission. Already, the family relationships were starting to re-emerge. Joe was on the first leg of what would be a 28-day stay.
That following Monday, Joe and I went to pick up his food stamps card at the Little Creek office. It was like watching a big kid get his long-awaited Christmas gift. Joe was happy. I saw hope on his face. That following Wednesday we went back to the Little Creek office for his FSET Assessment so that they could qualify him for receiving the food stamps assistance over time. They gave Joe a medical evaluation form that he would need to have a physician complete. Once a physician verified his disability, Joe would be eligible to receive all the assistance he needed.
As we left Little Creek and headed back to Joe’s stepmother’s house, we passed by the DMV office. I knew that Joe still didn’t have any proof of an address nor his social security card. But he had received a copy of his birth certificate already in the mail. For some reason, I felt like there might be a possibility we may be able to get his state ID. So we turned around and went to the DMV office. We got in line. I started praying for God’s favor. When we spoke with the woman at the counter and explained Joe’s situation, she asked if we could get someone from the Union Mission to fax a letter verifying that Joe was a resident at the shelter. I got the Union Mission on the phone. They promptly faxed the letter. After only about 1.5 hours, Joe had his state ID card. Walking out of the office, Joe looked at me and said, “You did it again.” I asked, “Did what?” He said, “You did what you said you were gonna do.” I told him that I was only trying to do what I believed Jesus would do.
That Monday, we went looking for where Joe could get seen by a physician. We went to a couple of places before we found the right place. We arrived at Park Place Medical Center. There was a sign on the door to let us know that it was closed. I then remembered that it was a holiday.
That day that we went to Park Place Medical Center and found the facility closed due to the holiday left us with some free time. So, I took advantage of this opportunity to sit and talk with Joe and his stepmother. Joe was complaining a lot about her and she had called me a few times complaining about him. So I thought there needed to be some intervention. Sometimes when family units are reconnecting there will be bumps in the road. Sometimes there will be a need for mediation. So I sat with Joe and his stepmother. I listened to her as she complained about what Joe did and didn’t do. I listened to Joe as he complained about what she would and wouldn’t do. I prayed for wisdom and tried as best I could to mediate. By the time I left I felt that God was working in that house that that the relationship was going to grow.
Joe finally got in for his first appointment at the medical center. The doctor didn’t do too much. I wasn’t with Joe for the appointment. Several weeks later, Joe was scheduled for a follow-up doctor appointment. We arrived at the Park Place Medical Center and signed Joe in for the appointment. A few minutes later we were called to the desk and informed that Joe’s doctor didn’t come into the office that day and that the appointment would have to be rescheduled. So, we rescheduled for the following week on that Thursday. A week passed and we arrived at Park Place for our rescheduled appointment. As we were about to get out of the car, I realized that I left a document that we needed Joe’s doctor to complete. So, I dropped Joe off and left to grab the document – which was only 8 minutes away. Four minutes into my eight-minute trip I got a call from the clerk at Park Place informing me that Joe didn’t have an appointment. She explained that while they found the vacant appointment slot during our previous visit, and told us when the rescheduled appointment would be, AND gave us an appointment card… still they neglected to put Joe’s name in the slot. So, again, the appointment had to be rescheduled.
The following Tuesday, Joe called me and said that he called Park Place to make sure they had his appointment scheduled and there would be no problem when we arrived for his Wednesday appointment. When we arrived on the following day, they did have Joe’s appointment on the schedule. We arrived at 10:41 for Joe’s 10:45 appointment. About 11:00, Joe was called into the back for the nurse to take his weight, temp, pulse and BP. We were sent back to the lobby. About 12:45 we were called to the back for Joe to see the doctor. About 15 minutes later, the doctor arrived in the exam room where Joe and I had been waiting.
The physician examined Joe again, looked over the results from the blood work done at Joe’s previous visit, asked for the documents we needed her to complete… then lowered the boom on us. She informed us that, based on her findings, she could not qualify Joe as being disabled. She would complete the Department of Human Services paperwork but would state that he is able to work with limited lifting – only 15 pounds. She would continue his prescription for the chronic pain he lives with. She would write him a prescription to get a walker to help him walk, but he’s not disabled. She did also complete the form for him to temporarily have disability privileges with the public transit system. Finally, she informed Joe that he has a chronic viral condition. He thought that when he was diagnosed many years ago, it was a virus that would go away once he went through treatment. She informed us that this condition was one that doesn’t go away.
As we left that facility, I saw a look on Joe’s face that I hadn’t seen in three months. I saw hopelessness.
I felt frustration. After all this work to try and get Joe some assistance, this man was being told that he didn’t qualify for the assistance that our state offers. This man who had been living on the streets, whose mother introduced him to alcohol as a youth, whose life had been nearly destroyed, who had just begun hoping again, who was just now getting back on his feet, was now being told that he wasn’t qualified for this particular kind of assistance.
But, I knew that it wouldn’t be good for Joe to know what I was feeling. He needed hope. He needed to have a better perspective. So, I began to tell him that this was good news. I told him how he didn’t have to wait any longer for someone else to provide for him. He could now go out there and find some work and provide for himself. He could be self-supporting. I started reminding him of how smart he was, and that he didn’t have to get a job slinging 50-pound boxes. Instead, he could find a job where his brilliant mind would be the key asset.
We arrived back at the church and hung out for a while before Joe left. When he walked out of the door, the smile dropped from my face. I was glad that Julie from Second Chances happened to be conducting a class at the church that day and couldn’t wait to talk to her about the day’s developments.
Julie was ready to call in the cavalry. She told me that we couldn’t just let it rest with this doctor’s opinion. She pointed out the inequity in the social services system… how so many people who are much more physically able than Joe have been qualified for disability assistance. She even told me a part of her personal story. She told me that I should call Congressman Bobby Scott… or call Senator Yvonne Miller – another human rights advocate. She made it clear to me that it was time to fight for this man’s assistance.
But I had a complex combination of emotions going through my head.
We kept fighting. As the weeks passed I noticed that Joe was coming to church every Sunday. As we talked, I found that he gave up alcohol completely – just went cold turkey. God set him free. A few weeks later, Joe told me that he gave up cigarettes. A few weeks later, Joe told me that his brother was so impressed with how God was changing Joe’s life that he decided to follow Joe and give up alcohol as well. Joe’s relationship with his stepmother was getting better and better. She had opened the door for him to stay with her temporarily – but it was turning into a permanent arrangement. They were becoming family again.
One Sunday, Joe came to greet me and I noticed his eyes were very yellow. Later that week we met. Joe began to tell me about the health problems he was having. This was before he was approved for Medicaid. We started praying that he would get approved for Medicaid quickly so that he could go to a real hospital. You see, he had been going to Park Place Medical Center, but there was nothing being done about the pains he was having in his stomach, the discoloration of his bodily fluids nor the yellowing of his eyes. He was given prescriptions for pain pills and blood pressure medicine and sent home.
Can you imagine the variety of stories that social workers hear everyday? I’m sure they have to learn how to not take these matters to heart in order to not leave work depressed each day. But while taking Joe around to a variety of appointments, I’ve discovered that sometimes some social workers can seem cold and impenetrable. I don’t know how good that is.
Then we got a big break! Joe came in one Sunday and showed me his medical records from a hospital stay some years ago. He had records that showed the virus that had been diagnosed and the bone mass loss that caused the multiple bone fractures. He finally had enough to make a case for disability. We met with the doctor at the medical center but she did very little with this information. We pressed on with an advocate with the HART (Homelessness Action Response Team) Organization. He worked with Joe’s case and fought for him.
Finally that Sunday came when Joe walked up to me after church with a big smile on his face. He said, “Mike, I got good news. We finally got it.” He pulled out an envelope and showed me a document stating that he was qualified for Disability Assistance and Medicaid. He was so happy! So was I.
Working with Joe has shown me how insignificant our society can make homeless persons feel. We can treat them like numbers, like statistics, like a disease to society, like they aren’t a part of the same race. We can treat them like they aren’t significant. But these are people with amazing stories and a wealth of knowledge. Joe, for instance, has a great memory for dates. He’s like a walking calendar. His stories are rich with detail and history. No, he’s not insignificant.
God worked a beautiful work in Joe’s life. He has been coming to church faithfully every Sunday and has received Jesus as Savior. God saved him. He doesn’t even look like the same person.
It was always so cool to see him walk with that slow hobble into the sanctuary with his bible in his hand for the 9:30AM service. We would make our way to each other after service for our quick greeting. He’d tell me his story from that week. We’d talk about the squabbling between him and his stepmother. I’d help him see that her protective ways were efforts to express her love for him.
Then one Sunday I noticed that I hadn’t seen Joe all day.
The following Saturday I got a call from Joe’s brother informing me that Joe had been admitted to the hospital. When I got there to see him it scared me. He looked like he was facing death. The doctors found that his liver, kidneys and pancreas had stopped functioning and his heart was starting to malfunction. They determined that the virus was the culprit and was attacking his organs – as is characteristic of this particular viral condition.
We all started praying for him. His condition went from terrible to worse. He was taken to the ICU as they fought to save his life. Finally he started getting better. But we noticed him losing weight. He couldn’t eat much. It would cause abdominal pain. The doctors noticed a mass on his pancreas but weren’t able to diagnose the cause or nature because the fluid in Joe’s abdomen prevented them from getting a scope to his pancreas to effectively see what they were dealing with. Joe was in the hospital for a couple of weeks.
Then on day the family got a call from Joe stating that they had just transferred him from the hospital to the Norfolk Health Care Center. No warning. No communication with the family. No explanation. They just put him in a medical transport and sent him to the health care center with an order for a 10-week stay.
On the first Sunday that Joe was in the health care center, my wife and I were serving communion to some of the “sick and shut-in” from our home church along with some of the our other ministers. We included Joe on our list and went to serve him. His brother was there visiting with him. As we prepared to serve Joe communion, his stepmother walked in. This was the first time I’d ever had all of them in the same room. We served communion to Joe and his stepmother. Then I asked his brother if he would like to join us for the closing prayer. This was a God moment. We prayed for God to use this moment to reconnect this family that has been disjointed for decades. We sensed the Holy Spirit moving in the room and touching hearts.
A few Fridays later I received one of the worst phone calls I could ever receive. Joe’s brother called to tell me that Joe’s doctor wants the family to come to the hospital for a meeting so that they can decide on Joe’s final care in the hospital. You see, Joe’s condition plummeted. The medical condition that he has started rapidly decaying his body. The years of alcoholism not only damaged his organs but also veiled his declining health. He didn’t realize how sick he was until his body was alcohol free. He thought that the virus that he was diagnosed with as a young man was cured. He didn’t know that it never left his body. And without taking any medication for many years, it had done irreparable damage. So now Joe was on life support with a deteriorating body, semi conscious and nearly unresponsive.
During one of my last visit with Joe, I told him how much I had learned from him. I told him how he taught me the value of perseverance; how he showed me the importance of family; how he taught me to be grateful for my health and to take care of myself. I told him that I had learned how huge the struggle was for homeless persons; how much bureaucracy there is in the human services system, but I had also learned the system and now I’m better equipped to help the next person. I told Joe that I had written his story and posted it on the web so that people could see it. I told him about the many responses from people who are being touched by his life and his struggle. I assured him that his life had meaning and purpose and that God was using him to help and bless others.
Joe demonstrated to me that you can share a laugh – no matter what you’re going through. His life demonstrated the miracle working power of God in that God delivered him from his homeless condition, delivered him from alcohol addiction, delivered him from nicotine addiction, reconciled him with his family, saved him, and put such a hunger for God in him that – rain or shine – every Sunday you would see him walk from his home to church. Working with Joe taught me how to love a person back to life. I am a better man because of him.
So, Joe’s brother asked if I would go with the family to meet with the doctor. Joe’s brother doesn’t want to see him suffer any longer – especially after having witnessed their father suffer with lung cancer that traveled to his brain. He doesn’t want to see his brother endure pain and agony if there is no real chance of recovery.
It would be easier for me to receive a call from a doctor to say that my loved one had passed than to be called in to make a decision to let my loved one pass.
Yet my God works miracles. Who knew what He will do as the next act in the life of Joe.
The End of The Beginning…
After a Sunday’s service, my Pastor, my wife, my friend and I went to visit with Joe. I had gotten a call early that morning stating that the doctor had informed Joe’s family that he didn’t expect Joe to survive for more than another 24 hours. Our church was in prayer for Joe and for his family.
When we arrived, I saw the shell of the man I knew. I knew that he was all but gone. We prayed for him. We sensed that God was bringing down the curtain on this Act and transitioning Joe for the next Act. There was a sense of peace in the room. My emotions were torn. A part of me wanted to cry because I didn’t want to see him go… I wanted to hear that laugh once more… I wanted to tell him again, “You know I love you,” and hear him reply, “Yeah, I know. I love you, too.” I wanted to tell him once more, “You hang in there, now. Okay?” and hear him reply, as he always did, “What else I’m gon’ do?” I was missing him already.
But another part of me was happy. Happy that Joe was about to rest in the arms of the Father… That his stomach wasn’t going to be hurting anymore… that his knees wouldn’t be hurting anymore… that he wouldn’t have to be bored, stuck in a room with nothing but a TV and a portable CD player… that he wouldn’t have to fight with the system to get the help he needed. I was happy that his family had rallied with him… that he had reconnected with his daughter… that his brother and stepmother were working together. I was happy that Joe had met Jesus… that his soul had been saved… that his life had been changed… that his habits had been broken… that his bondages had been loosed… that his hope had been restored… and that he was now being healed right in the valley of the shadow of death.
About 30 minutes after we left the hospital, I got a call from Joe’s stepmother, informing me that Joe had just passed away.
My friend had finally completed his long walk from the street. He went from the street to the front door of the house that was once occupied by his father and mother. And now he had slipped out the back door of his earthly house into the front door of his Heavenly Father’s house. The journey was now complete.
Christopher Mims Simmons, Jr. aka Joe, I will never forget you. Thank you for letting God use you to teach me how to love. Rest well, my brother. I will see you when I, too, pass through that back door and enter into the front door of our Father’s house.
You know I love you.
In honor of Christopher Simmons, I will also share the Eulogy that I was honored to give at his memorial service.
This morning, we have gathered in this place to remember and to say farewell to our brother, father, son and friend, Christopher Mims Simmons, Jr. It is my distinguished honor to stand before you and share a few words to inspire and encourage this family and to highlight a few memories from the incredible journey that I shared with my friend. I would like to read a passage from the Holy Scriptures that I will use to help guide my moment of sharing. It is found in the first three verses of the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John. We hear Jesus say these words, “1Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”
As a thought or topic for what I will share with you today, I’d like to borrow the title of the blog that I’ve been writing about my journey with Chris, that title being – IT’S A LONG WALK FROM THE STREET.
Chris’ life was pretty unique. His story is pretty complex. His journey was filled with twists and turns. But when I step back – now that we see the final chapter that will be lived out on this earth – I notice that his physical journey is much like the spiritual journey that we all must take.
The story of Chris starts out in his father’s house. He was born into a family that loved him and a family that he loved. He told me about his wonderful father – the longshoreman. He told me about his loving mother. He told me about his days growing up. He told me about how he used to sing. We would talk about things that he experienced in this neighborhood as a child. He drew the picture of the old landscape – the houses that used to be here. The playground where he played. The schools he attended – all of this, while he was in his father’s house. He was born into a family.
This reminds me of the story of mankind. We were born into the family of God. The bible teaches us that in the beginning God said – “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” – and here we came. We were born into God’s family. We lived in the Garden of Eden – a place of fellowship with God – or can I call it Our Father’s House. We experienced the voice of God. We had a relationship with God. One day, God expanded the family after performing the first surgery, removing one of Adam’s ribs, and creating a wife for him. Together, they lived in the family of God – in relationship with God. They lived in innocence. There was no sin, no wrong-doings, no crime, no evil, no hatred, no pain, no sickness, no death. They were living a life of pure bliss. This is the beginning of our story. We were all a part of that innocence. We are Adam’s seed.
It would have been great if Chris’ story didn’t change. But there was something that happened. Chris experienced something huge, something that changed everything, something that brought a huge trick bag. Chris faced LIFE. Life brought him a whole lot of things. Life brought Chris some temptations, some trials and some troubles. Life brought him some headaches, some heartache and some heartbreak. Life brought him some sickness, some sadness and some sorrow. Life brought him some losses, some lashes, and some lessons. Life came with a loaded bag. And as a result of life, Chris lost his place in his father’s house. He went from place to place – taking shelter wherever he could. He tried to maintain the relationships he knew. He had already lost his father and mother. He tried to maintain his relationship with his brother, his sister, his stepmother and his daughter. But life! Life had brought him some things that made relationships rocky and things that made companionship costly. Very soon, Chris found himself alone, isolated, separated and vulnerable – all because of Life. After an unfortunate series of events and in incredible run of circumstances, Chris found himself on the street. He was homeless. And while there are shelters around this town that provide for the homeless, Chris couldn’t get in a shelter because – he had lost his identification. He could no longer prove who he was.
Adam faced life, too. Life brought Adam that bag of tricks – and soon, sin was born in the world. And because of sin, Adam lost his place in his father’s house and found himself homeless, living on the street, without his identity. You and I came out of our mother’s wombs in that condition. We were born into a life with an open trick-bag. We were born without our identity. Sometimes we find temporary shelter from the storms of life – but without a relationship with our father, we always find ourselves right back on the street.
This is where I met Chris. He was living in the bushes, just around the block from here. Some of the ministers and members from Gethsemane had reached out their hands and helped Chris along his journey. I remember that Wednesday evening in November that my wife, Sharon, was touched with compassion and said, “Let’s go back and see if that man is still out there in the bushes. If he is, let’s take him some food.” Now, I had just recently prayed for a more compassionate, giving heart. My wife seemed to have always had that kind of heart and I wanted it, too. God used Sharon to show me Chris. Then God used Chris to show me how to love.
Chris and I started bonding. Chris would come to church and we would talk. I found myself driven to help him. Now, I thought – okay, he’s homeless. Let’s get him in a shelter, let’s get him into rehab, and let’s get him back on track. But once we started the journey, I realized that it’s a LONG WALK from the street. You see, I had no idea how hard it is for a person to regain their identity once it is lost. I had no idea how difficult it was for someone to get the medical attention they need without medical insurance. I had no idea how difficult it was for someone to navigate the Human Services system. I had no idea how difficult it is for some persons with legitimate disabilities to receive disability assistance. I had no idea just how long a walk it was from the street. All I knew was that God had connected me to Chris and I had to see it through. There was new kind of compassion birthed inside of me; a new drive and desire was burning in my heart. I wanted to see Chris back in his father’s house with his identity and with the benefits he deserved as a citizen of this great land.
I believe that this is where Jesus found us. We were on the streets. We had lost our identity. But Jesus had such a burning desire to see us back in our Father’s house that he laid down his life on the cross of Calvary so that we could have right standing with God. Jesus became our path back home. He restored our relationship with the Father. It is through His powerful act of love that we regain our identity as children of God. It is through His act of love that we receive all of the benefits of being a citizen of God’s kingdom. It is through His act of love that our sins are forgiven and we are saved. I believe that John 3:16 says it very clearly, “For God so loved the world that He gave… “
I remember the day that Chris and I sat in Alice Mae’s restaurant and he called his brother. I remember the look of relief on his face when he made contact with Harry. I remember that day in my car when Chris called Renee. I remember him being so happy when he heard your voice. I remember the tears that ran down his face when he gave me back the phone – because he was so happy to talk with his daughter. I remember the day that we left the DMV office when Chris had finally gotten his state ID card. I remember watching this wonderful metamorphosis take place from Sunday to Sunday. I remember seeing Chris come in with new outfit after new outfit. I remember us talking about Mary always shopping for him. He would say, “I don’t need no more new clothes.” I would remind him that this was Mary’s way of say, “I love you.” Then he’d open his jacket and say, “I know.” You see, by now he was living in his father’s house again. And now that he was back in his father’s house, his life was blossoming. He was eating again. Mary was feeding him good. He was in relationship with his family again.
But of everything I saw, I was most excited about the fact that Chris had entered into a relationship with Jesus Christ. This relationship had brought about a major change in his life. Chris had gotten free from things that many people never get free from. This guy was free from the vices that had nearly destroyed his life. God had done a work in Chris that was obvious. And every Sunday – rain, snow or shine – Chris made his way to the house of the Lord to worship God. He made himself a part of the Gethsemane family where he was surrounded by people who loved and cared for him.
I thought that perhaps this was as far as I needed to go with Chris. But the Sunday came when I noticed that I didn’t see Chris in church. We found out that Chris had gone into the hospital. Over the next few weeks there was a part of the journey that none of us were prepared for – except Chris. You see, he had gone from his father’s house – to the street – and back into his father’s house. But now he was slipping out the back door of his earthly father’s house into the front door of his Heavenly Father’s mansion. We didn’t see this coming. I thought that he would be coming back to his house on Reservoir Avenue – but God had already decided that the journey had been long enough. Now, it was time for Chris to slip away – from the back door of his earthly father’s house – into the front room of rest in his Heavenly Father’s house.
This is a part of the journey that we all must face one day. We will be brought to the back door of life. But it doesn’t have to be a fearful moment if we follow Chris’ example – he prepared for his eternity. Despite the things that life had thrown at him, the struggles that he had to endure, the times he had fallen and had to get up, despite the loneliness, despite the dark days, despite the mistakes, despite the illness – Chris made a decision to receive Jesus as his Savior. Because of that decision, Chris faced his last days with peace and dignity. And now, he’s resting in the arms of his Heavenly Father. Let’s follow that example.
Chris, you know I love you. My life is forever changed because of you. I’ll see you again when we meet in Heaven.