Lessons from a Homeless Drug Addict
by Osheta Moore
“Oh, Jesus! I am such a hot mess!” I prayed at 10:30 at night, walking home from the bus stop with my high heels in hand and my once done-up hair now flat and wilted.
“I want to love fearlessly and unconditionally like you, Jesus.” I prayed, “But I didn’t tonight. Fear got in my way,” I continued, stepping over the curbside offerings of a broken side table and kitschy lamp from my neighbors. “Lord, send someone braver than I his way, send someone behind me to protect him. Let your grace cover my mess. Be with Chris Walker tonight, Lord. Please.” I begged.
Chris Walker was the homeless man I just encountered on my girls’ night out to see Alvin Ailey, and my one encounter with him in a downtown Boston McDonald’s changed everything I believed about loving people and doing good in the world.
As a birthday gift, my friends surprised me with a ticket to see my all-time favorite dance company. In college, I studied dance and secretly wanted to (someday) dance with Alvin Ailey. It was the perfect gift, and I was so thrilled that afternoon getting ready for the show—put on my favorite heels, put my hair up in a bun, and planned to buy an Alvin Ailey T-shirt as a souvenir, because the perfect leggings to wear with it.
Walking out of the theater after the show, with my new tee in hand, a young man approached me.
“Ma’am can you buy me something from McDonald’s?” he asked.
Instinctively, I avoided eye contact and kept walking— it’s hard to know exactly what to do when you encounter a homeless person. On one hand you want to help, but on the other, you’re not sure what’s the best way to do so.
“No, no. I’m sorry I can’t.” I said perfunctorily.
A lie. I was just on my way to buy myself a burger from the trendy café up the way before heading back home to be with the family—surely, I could have afforded a three-dollar value meal. Surely, for this gaunt and frail looking young man.
“Oh, ok. Goodnight, ma’am.” He walked the opposite direction from me.
And as I neared the trendy burger restaurant, I sensed Jesus challenge me, “Osheta. What if you spend your dinner money on that young man?”
The conviction that I could help right in that moment as an opportunity to practice everyday peacemaking, stopped me in my tracks. With hands reaching for the restaurant’s wood grain handled door, I realized something important. I had been blessed with so much—a fun night out, disposable income, a warm home to return to, and this young man was clearly in need.
So, I turned around, ran toward him, even though I was in leopard printed heels and the sidewalk was wet from a recent rainstorm, and yelled, “Hey! Hey!”
The young man, I once rejected, turned toward me, and when we made eye contact, he smiled.
When we were just feet from each other, I said apologetically, “Hey. You know what, I really can buy you dinner. What’s your name?”
As he caught his breath, he stuck out his dirty hand with nails blackened from the grime of the streets, and said, “Chris. Chris Walker.”
Walking toward McDonald’s, Chris told me that he was, in fact, homeless and he’s been starving all day and that right in that moment, he was afraid.
“Why are you afraid?” I asked.
“Because I’m supposed to be in Worchester tomorrow to meet my probation officer, and I don’t have enough money to get there. If I don’t get there by tomorrow, there will be a warrant for my arrest.”
He told me he’s schizophrenic and that his uncle kicked him out and while living on the street he got in some trouble—which is why he had to meet up with a probation officer every two weeks.
“Ma’am,” he said, stopping right outside the McDonald’s. “I really, really, really didn’t want to go to jail,” he confessed.
Since I knew the ticket was going to be less than $20, and that’s exactly what I had in my pocket, I offered to buy his ticket.
For that moment, Chris, was mine to care for, and I don’t let my babies down!
We left the restaurant and went underground to the subway to buy his ticket, and all the while he told me more of his troubles, fears and thanked me repeatedly. All the while I felt right. I was loving like Jesus and waiting for the moment to naturally share my faith, maybe ‘I could connect him to a ministry in the area after dinner,’ I thought.
Bus ticket secured and ready for dinner, we walked back to McDonald’s, and abruptly Chris stopped me in the doorway to confess. “Actually, ma’am. I wanted the cash for dinner so I could get drugs. Can you give me some cash, instead?”
Red alert. Chris was mentally ill, he had a criminal history, and now, he’s admitted to dealing with substance abuse. This boy who I once felt such compassion for, lost it as soon as he mentioned drugs. I began to feel our interaction was taking a turn toward hopelessness because I had very little, if any, grace for people fighting addictions. Resentful rose up in my spirit because Chris wasted my time.
Standing in the doorway of McDonald’s, I was faced with an uglier truth than Chris’s drug addiction—I only wanted to love people when it made sense to me. I wanted to control the flow of grace and only point it toward those who I deem worthy. Sadly, I was more interested in being Christ-like as long as it suited my needs and personality.
I sighed, “Chris! No, no I can’t. I’ll pay for your dinner but, that’s all.”
“Only weed. I only do weed,” he bargained.
“Sorry. No.” Then my disappointment mingled with my fear and I stepped back a little further, paid closer attention to my surroundings, prepared to run away if he insisted.
I’m unable to endure tension without levity, so I quirked a little smile, forced a chuckle and said with as much sass I could muster, “You want dinner or not?”
Chastened, he nodded. I bought him dinner.
He asked for it to go, I think he felt the weight of my disappointment in him and didn’t want to sit through a meal with me. As he walked away, I just sat in the McDonald’s, filled with a sadness both for his lot in life and the realization that as much as I want to be unconditionally loving—at times, I am not.
It’s been four years since my dinner with Chris, and often I’ve wondered why I created boundaries around my compassion that night. I think it’s because in those moments, I would easily forget that we belong to each other, like Mother Teresa once said, “If we have no peace it’s because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Because I forget that we belong to each other, because we are all considered children of God, it’s easy to ignore my calling to be a peacemaker for those in need—even if I disagree with their life choices.
I’ve been asking myself regularly: how can I cultivate a life practice of always loving, always embracing, always caring for the people I interact with everyday—unconditionally, completely?
One way has been to remember that “we are beloved.” Every single person on this earth is loved dearly by God, to Him they are His beloved. When He looks at them, He delights. They are precious to Him and He calls them His own—even in their sin and brokenness. I know this is the case for me. While I am still a sinner, Christ loves me. So, does it not make sense for me to love others out of the overflow I feel every day?
I think this is what Jesus wanted for us when He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.” When we love the people in our lives because we have been loved by Abba Father, we have the power to change the world. We have the unique capacity to bring the peace of God to broken, scared, hungry and lonely people. We can be the voice of God to the lonely to tell them they belong and we will care for them as our own.
I often think about Chris and wonder if he ever got to Worcester and if his probation officer was able to find him help for his addiction. When I’m walking down the streets in our new home of Los Angeles and notice a homeless man from Skid Row, I try to remember that he is beloved. He is made in the image of God, and he is my brother. So, I open myself up to hear from the Spirit the practical ways I can love him. Sometimes it looks like buying a meal. Sometimes it looks like listening to him tell me about his day and choosing to not judge him when he mentions drugs or alcohol. All the time it looks like honoring him with eye contact and kindness. I’ve come a long way from chiding myself for not loving Chris well, but I have a way to go. So in those moments when I feel disappointed in myself, I remember that I am beloved too, and that truth mobilizes me to be a peacemaker in my life, every single day, for every person I encounter.
Osheta Moore is a writer and podcaster in Los Angeles, as well as wife to an urban pastor, mother of three, and economic justice advocate for women in developing countries. Moore has consistently been a voice for peacemaking, justice, and racial reconciliation.
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