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by Al Boyce
4/02/2009 / Holidays
I'm sitting just inside the flap of a tent in an abandoned homeless camp.
It's a beautiful spring day, warm breezes tickling the faded blue tarp overhead, turning a couple of free-floating beer cans into aluminum wind chimes.
I think of Larry. It's his camp. I'm just here to sort through some things and get ... what?
Larry is in jail, where he may stay for some time. They won't let me give him his large-print Bible, his hand-worn radio.
Maybe his reading glasses? I don't know. Have to look over the rules one more time.
I don't want to write about this. I feel as heavy as the day is light.
I think back to another spring day when another man, looking a lot like me, ventured into a barren city park with my wife to help with an Easter service for the homeless.
The homeless had faces then, but no names. Just a sea of scruffy humanity streaming out of the woods, shuffling through the food line, patiently listening to a sermon and taking a communion of grape juice and croutons.
I thought how miraculous it was that, without conscious coordination, people brought just the right amount of food; that there were just enough chairs; that musicians came with instruments and knew enough worship songs to fill the gazebo with God's praises.
I didn't know how God worked then. I thought somehow WE could help people conquer drug addictions, get jobs, go back to their loved ones, maybe find a church.
But we didn't have any skills to do that. So we just tried to be willing vessels and began visiting the homeless where they lived, in the woods.
At a weekly dinner in a parking lot, the faces became people: Melanie and Otto. Butch, Chris, Luis. Bus Stop Danny and New York Bill. The dinner became a Bible study and we sat, amazed, as our new friends, often drunk or stoned, read scripture out loud and discussed it; even dissected it and came up with new insights.
How miraculous, I thought, that God was revealing to us that His word could touch everyone; that we were not here to "fix" the homeless. We were here to complete one another.
So many miracles followed.
A family in California reached across the continent to North Carolina, wondering, did we know their son, Chris? And we did. We saw God heal Chris of injuries suffered in a car accident, heal him of alcoholism and reunite him with his family in time to be there when his dad died.
Shortly after that, Chris died as well. But we keep in touch with his family. They sometimes send money to help some other homeless man or woman take that long trip back to another family.
Then there was Bob, homeless from the age of 14, still drinking after 14 attempts at alcohol rehab, doggedly coming to the Bible studies, apologizing for being drunk.
God touched Bob too. He found work, found validation from his boss and began listening to the Bible on CDs. He began visiting other homeless when they were in the hospital, as God made something new from something we had thought might not be redeemed.
When Bob found out he had lung cancer, he talked about God using him for some purpose, even as he went through chemotherapy and radiation therapy; even as he was forced to carry an oxygen tank everywhere -- including on his rounds to the hospital.
Bob died too, surrounded by dozens of people he'd only known a short time.
I think about how death makes way for new life in things. Seeds fall to the spring earth to become new trees. Pride and self-righteousness die to make way for God's grace and mercy.
So many miracles, I think again.
Larry, I know there's one waiting for you.
Al Boyce is a former writer and reporter for The Associated Press. He lives in Raleigh, NC, where he now writes for God.
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