Sometimes life forces a lesson onto you. And sometimes it takes many years for that lesson to gel.
Actually, I find that this happens quite a lot. This is a story of those types of lessons.
I once had the opportunity to stay, sleep, and eat for a few weeks in a musty and prison-like Christian Rescue Mission in Macon, Georgia. It was a non-descript warehouse type of building in a less than glamorous section of downtown Macon, with a stereotypical neon sign above the roof that proclaimed in glowing red light that “Jesus Saves.” It’s not that I wanted to sleep in a warehouse with a bunker full of creepy and unwashed homeless men. It’s just that the local police wouldn’t let me sleep in the park under a bush.
Because I suppose that would have just made me a creepy, unwashed homeless man, too, albeit a much younger one.
So, for a few interesting weeks during the early months of 1994, I was spending a great deal of my days looking for work in and around Macon. The rescue mission had a policy that you could stay in their lodgings for as long as you needed, on the premise that you would either donate to the church (unlikely, due to the homelessness we all suffered from), or would spend all day either working or looking for work. Either way, you were expected to be absent from the building during working hours, unless you had a valid reason to be hanging about.
One of the ways that the mission helped men get back onto their feet was to encourage some of the better-off members of the church to hire us for day work. A little painting, some light carpentry, a bit of landscaping, occasional yard work, and that sort of thing. Being young and of solid health, I did quite a bit of day labor while in Macon, and managed to pocket a bit of cash to finance the rest of my journey homeward. (I was in the middle of a country-wide hitchhiking expedition, but that is another story for another day.)
The day labor was usually the kind of work that one envisions when one thinks of ‘day labor.’ It was sweaty and hot, often involved shovels, axes, and other hand tools, and was very hard on a man’s clothes.
I had been traveling very light for the last couple of weeks (I was hitchhiking, remember?), and only owned a couple pairs of jeans in all the world. Everything I owned could fit into a duffel bag at that point in my life, and a big shopping expedition to the local mall was unequivocally out of the question. So my clothes kept taking a beating, and were beginning to look much worse for the wear. But at least I had work, so the days weren’t so bad.
The nights, however, were a different story. I have had occasion to spend a few nights in the local county jail a couple times in my life. In a county jail, you are usually locked up with other folks from the neighborhood. A lot of times it’s just a bunch of guys who also should have learned to call a cab. And usually everyone is just a normal Joe, the type of guy you would expect to meet at the grocery store or the gas station. People in jail, by and large, are pretty average folk.
People in homeless shelters occasionally meet that definition, but not very often. The root cause for homelessness, so far is I’ve been able to discern, is one of two things. Crippling addiction (to alcohol usually) or insanity. Our great society, in over 200 years, has still not come up with a method of dealing with people who have these problems, unless they come from a family of means. If you are poor and insane, or poor and addicted, you will live on the street. And then, very possibly, you will live in the Macon County Rescue Mission.
So I learned very quickly to keep to myself. I stayed out of the mission until dinner was served, I would take a walk after my meal, and I would read myself to sleep with books that I traded my way into along my travels. Almost never did I allow myself to be drawn into a conversation with the men that I bunked with. Because for the most part, they were quite insane. And insane men can be most unpredictable at times.
And then comes the part about the lesson. Because this is a story about a lesson, remember? And the lesson, for me, came in the form in the form of a crazy looking, scary, unshaven, homeless man who never once uttered a single word to me. He never said anything at all. He didn’t eyeball me, or try to fight me, or anything at all that you would expect a crazy looking homeless man to do.
What he did was, as I looked at and considered once again the condition of my work-stained jeans, walk up to me and put a pair of pretty nice jeans on my cot, turn without hesitation, and walk back to the other side of the room to pick up a book that he had been reading. No words were exchanged, no explanations, no requests, no opinions, no nothing. Just a pair of jeans.
Small acts of kindness are never small acts.
And that is now a lesson that I will not soon forget.