Birthday Cake on the Corner and Tears on the Camera...
“I did my dad wrong. I did a lot of things to hurt him. I wish I could take it all back, but I can't. I wish I could tell him how sorry I am, but it's too late. When my dad was alive, he took us to church regularly. When he died, I blamed God for it. I blamed Him for many years… Now I'm trying to find my way back to Him; He's the only one that can help me, the only one.”
My boys love Chick-fil-A and we visit there often. When we turn out of the parking lot, there is normally a man with his backpack sitting on the corner. He usually waves at us and I always make sure to tell my boys to wave and oftentimes roll down the window. Last year the boys, 6-year-old twins, started asking about him. I explained that he is homeless, perhaps because he made the wrong choices in life that led him there. But I told them that is no reason for us to judge him but for us to realize how important choices are in life.
I wondered what the man had gone through in his life to lead him there. I wondered if he was scamming people, perhaps to buy the very things that feed the addiction to put the pain away. The pain of maybe a bad childhood or failed marriage or failed career path.
When the boys celebrated their birthday last year, they insisted we bring him cake and wanted to give him part of their birthday money. I was hesitant, although I’m not really sure why. Yet I knew deep down that it was the right thing to do. I took them and they handed him the cake along with a dollar from each of them. He took the cake but he insisted he couldn't take their money. I looked in his eyes when he told me he couldn't take it, and I could see so much pain. His eyes were deep, with a tear in the corner. I thought to myself this man, despite the scars, is a person and he has a story. It was there yet again – this burning in my heart that I must do the Winter Project. It was like God was telling me, “There are souls out there that have stories, stories that will inspire, and I’m leading you to them. Open the door.” Let me tell you, the journey in becoming the Waco Storyteller has been completely heart-led, even though I battled for over a year whether or not to open that door…
The other day, while in line at Chick-fil-A with my sister-in-law, I saw a friend I knew and told her about this new project I'm working on and that I planned to visit the man on the corner. She said, “Just don't give him money. He's not really homeless. I've seen him leave in a truck before.” I could sense the doubt of who he was. She, much like many of us, including myself at times, judged this man. Judged him without knowing his story.
I walked up to him and told him I was working on a project and asked if I could take an image of him. He said, “No, I don't want my picture on TV.” I explained that more than likely his picture wouldn't make it on TV. But I couldn't guarantee it wouldn't. He was very against it. I asked him if he remembered me stopping by with my boys and them giving him their birthday cake, and he replied that he did. I told him some of my story. I told him more about the Winter Project. I told him that I'm doing this because I felt led to, that it's a project to build a different perspective of our neighbors, and that the goal is to inspire others. His voice changed, he picked his bible up, and he said, “I would be glad for you to take my picture. I'm just trying to find Jesus. It's the only hope I have.”
I asked him what led him to sit on the corner; what happened in life that brought him to that point?
He said, “I'm 70, I get $650 a month from the government and it’s not enough to pay for my gas and a place to stay. I can't work, my record isn't good, and I'm too old for anyone to hire me. I believe in hard work. I don't understand seeing 20- and 30-year-olds sitting on the corner when they could work. This isn't where I want to be. I don't do drugs or alcohol. Used to, but the only place drugs will get anyone is dead or in prison.”
I then asked, “When did it start, what really happened that caused you to be who you are today?” He looked down at the ground and his voice started trembling as he told me how his dad had passed away when he was 18. How he came from a family of eight kids and was always known as his dad's favorite. How his dad took him to church and raised him right, yet he rebelled and started doing drugs. How he ended up in prison and didn't get to tell his dad goodbye. How he's lived with guilt every day since that day. Oh how he wished he could tell his dad he was sorry. The tears flowed from his eyes, and as he wiped them away, he apologized for tearing up. I looked down at my camera and noticed there were drops of tears puddling up there too. It was then that I knew why I was led to open the door to the Waco Winter Project and become the Waco Storyteller.
I don't know about you, but in my mind I've questioned those that panhandle when I've seen them jump in a car, possibly rotating shifts with other panhandlers. I've been guilty of not giving because of that reason. For thinking, like my friend I talked to earlier, that it's all a scam. But you guys...this touched me. I saw this man’s tears and they were real. I hugged him when I left and I felt the warmth of his hug as he hugged me back. He has a story – just like all of us.