Where faith, life, and lyrics meet…

Dell & Paula (But We’re All Poor)

Disclaimer: I write this not at all to teach a lesson or to commend myself, but rather simply to share an experience, to show areas where I struggle, and to see what other people think. To the best of my ability, what follows is an accurate accurate account of what happened a few days ago. Immediately after it happened, I typed out the whole thing on my blackberry, so that I wouldn’t forget. While I have since re-read and edited my haphazard but detailed notes for clarity, I still am processing what happened.

I was copping my ticket at the machine in Penn Station when I heard a raspy voice coming from behind and to the side of me – “Hey brother, are you going to Long Branch?” In my peripheral vision, I peeped a dirty, rumpled, toothless older black man. Likely homeless. Possibly in his 50s but, then again, a hard life can age you quickly. I threw a quick “Nah, I’m not” over my shoulder and continued sorting through all the options on the touch-screen. Scooting extra close and shielding the keypad with my hand and body, I entered my pin. When I looked up, not only was Mr. “Long Branch” still there, but he had in fact gotten even closer, now standing about 3 feet away. “You got any change, brother?” I said, “No” (I actually didn’t). Then I asked him if he was trying to get something to eat and he replied, “Yeah, that was the whole purpose, brother.”

As we started walking toward the food court in the station, I let him choose the restaurant and he immediately decided on “the hamburger place” because, “They have the best hamburgers in the world here.” Outwardly I smiled and nodded, but mentally I rolled my eyes and shrugged, thinking “Best hamburgers in the world? Okay, homie.”

My skeptical thoughts were interrupted by a shrill, older female voice coming from the left of us. “You got somebody to buy you food? Well, &@#$ you then.” Wow – so bitter. Mr. “Long Branch” offered to split the hamburger with the ragged woman, whom he apparently knew, but she responded with more bile, saying “What the @$*# am I s’posed to do with half a hamburger?!?!” Trying to hold back my laughter at this exchange, I invited her to join us and promised to buy her food too. Her harsh tune quickly changed to a chorus of “God is good’s” and “thank you’s.” Each time she tacked a “brother” on the end, just as the man had done.

She wanted a chicken breast (“Just a chicken breast – I don’t need nothin’ else”), so we headed to KFC while Mr. “Long Branch” stood in line at Nathan’s (Sidenote: I was definitely thinking like… “So this is the source of the world-class hamburgers? But then again, when times is hard…”). As I waited in line with her, I asked for her name and she told me it was Paula. Then she said “At least you have a heart. Most people pass and don’t even care. They don’t know how hard it is to be homeless.” According to Paula, they usually slept outside, but had sought shelter in the station due to the snow. “Today, I woke up with snow on my damn blanket,” she shared.

She began to upbraid the people who daily passed and ignored her or looked at her with disgust. “See – look at him over there lookin’ at me like I’m crazy,” she loudly exclaimed while gesturing at a tall middle-aged white guy at the front of the line, who pretended that he hadn’t heard her. (Hehe I know you heard her, punk). Now I don’t know whether the late-teenage/20-something-year-old Napolean Dynamite-looking kid immediately in front of us suddenly lost his appetite, realized that his train was leaving him, had a weak bladder and desperately needed to pee all of a sudden, or thought the woman was talking about him and felt really uncomfortable (I’m leaning toward this last possibility), but regardless, he hastily left his place in line and scampered away.

Mr. “Long Branch” hollered at me from the Nathan’s line, announcing that it was his turn, so after paying for Paula’s chicken breast, I hurried over to the counter to pay for his hamburger. I arrived in the middle of his hitting on the cashier, calling her “cutie.” She seemed relieved to see me (or maybe just by the fact that someone was actually gonna pay for his food lol). Food paid for, I shook hands with Mr. “Long Branch” and he said “Thanks brother” again before I hurried away toward the train.

But as I walked away, I felt a tug on my heart that wouldn’t leave me alone, until finally I gave in and walked back to look for them. Neither was at the food court when I got back. I mentally kicked myself. Uggh! Another opportunity missed due to fear and hesitation. Sorry, Lord.

As I walked back dejectedly, I spotted Mr. “Long Branch” walking with his food in his hands and flirtatiously giving directions to a young black woman with luggage. Not wanting to interrupt (the game or the direction-giving), I waited a few steps behind. When he was done, I asked him his name and if he had a few minutes to talk while he ate. His name was “Dell.” To my question of where he was eating, he responded, “I was hoping she was gonna sit and eat with me,” gesturing toward the retreating back of the young woman. “She was gorgeous.” I smiled in amusement and nodded in agreement.

We sat down on the floor across from the NJ transit ticket machines. I struggled with how to start, so I began with small talk (translation: a bunch of awkward questions that maybe I shouldn’t have asked). I asked him about Paula and whether she was his wife, girlfriend, or friend. He said “partner,” so I left it alone. I awkwardly asked him when he had last eaten. He said it was last night. Then recognizing my time was short, I took a deep breath and went for it.

I began by saying that I felt like he really didn’t need to thank me for the food because God has blessed me so much and it was the least I could do. I did want him to know the real reason that I bought him and Paula food. It wasn’t because I was a good person – just the opposite – I have made tons of mistakes in my life.  I knew it just as easily could be me homeless and in need if things in my life had gone differently. I mentioned how Paula had called that guy out for looking at her funny because she was homeless. Really, in comparison to a holy, spotless God, I was the dirty, poor and needy one and actually deserved for God to look at me as such. Instead, this God came and lived as a human and died to pay the price for my sins. And this wasn’t a one-time act of charity; rather he made it possible for me to have an on-going relationship with Him.

This is why I felt compelled to double back and talk to Dell. I didn’t want to just throw him a couple dollars, alleviate my middle-class guilt, and keep it pushing. God has done so much for me, and any love I show others is only possible because of his example (1 John 3:16, 1 John 4:19). Maybe this was awkward, but I told Dell that I loved him and that I was sorry he was struggling right now. I told him that although I didn’t know the state of his relationship with God, I really wanted him to know this stuff before I got on the train.

He thanked me and added that he did have a relationship with God. When I asked him what he meant by this, he explained that he knew God loved him, that Jesus died for his sins, and rose the third day. He then went on to say, “I’m glad it’s me and not somebody else – one of them…like…him or her or him.” He pointed unabashedly at each random person passing by as he said this. Dell said he actually prays for them. He continued, “If God let this happen to them, they might not be able to take it and end up committing suicide. Maybe God is using this to get my attention and get things that ain’t right in me together.”

I know there are a lot of factors (economic, social, political, and personal) that go into creating poverty, but this declaration of faith in the midst of hardship rocked me so much that I paused for a second. Then I said,” Well, in that case, you really are my brother and not just ‘cause we both black.” He nodded and said, “Brother in Christ.” I wanted to ask how he had gotten in this situation but realized my train left in 2 minutes. So I asked him if we could pray real quick. I thanked God for being God. I asked forgiveness for my own self-absorption and pride and thanked Him for his interrupting my commute. This interruption had both blessed and challenged me. I thanked him for Dell’s faith and asked that God would strengthen and grow him in it. And I prayed that God would help him out of his situation. As I got up to leave, he got up too, asking my name. We shook hands and hugged and then I rushed off to catch my train.

Thoughts? Reactions? What do y’all think about the stuff Paula & Dell said? Also, while I think I handled this situation better than the last one, I still see problematic attitudes and behavior that I need to improve. Any suggestions?


2 responses

  1. Wow, I love how this turned out. It actually made me think of the things I say about homeless people and I never bothered to do anything. It’s a great example to most Christians. I know people who were homeless and have been blessed to be in a place they can call home. I could never be as strong as they were. Honestly, I would have probably thought about killing myself, even though I know I’m covered under the blood. It was really an eye opener. Thanks for sharing.

    Sista T

    The fact that you prayed with him and didn’t let fear overcome you showed maturity in your walk with Christ.

    January 12, 2011 at 12:29 am

  2. Sista T! Glad you could make it, lol. As far as helping homeless people goes, this really is something I’ve been working on recently. If you peep the post called “Rappin’ it but not really Livin’ it,” you’ll see

    And that’s real talk – I think all of us who are well-fed, clothed and housed would def be a lot more merciful towards those in need if we got even a small taste of their lives.

    As far as praying with him and spiritual, all I can say is I’m “under construction” and God hasn’t given up on me yet (Philippians 1:6, 2:13).

    January 12, 2011 at 1:58 am

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