Barney whistled as he worked, his breath forming frosty puffs in the frigid air. His knuckles were cold and stiff, but it was impossible to shine shoes while wearing gloves.
He'd stationed himself directly outside one of the busiest office buildings in D.C., and business was booming. People of influence, on their way to seal the deal, didn't mind pausing for a quick shine to free their Florsheims from the city's winter slush and grime. Appearance was everything in their high-powered meetings.
From nearby, Gus observed the young man's ready smile and encouraging word for each life that intersected his own. Intrigued, he moved a smidge closer to the big double doors, hoping to catch some warmth from the lobby as each satisfied customer hustled inside.
Barney caught the old man's movement and turned to smile. "And how are you on this fine day, sir?"
Surprised to be addressed as 'sir,' Gus stammered. "I reckon I'm 'bout half froze."
Barney reached into a large pack propped against the building, the kind used by mountain climbers to carry their gear. He withdrew a blanket and handed it to Gus. "Here you go, sir. This might help."
Gus gratefully wrapped it around his shoulders and watched as Barney shined a pair of alligator loafers and chatted easily with their owner. 'Gator man was busy examining the Wall Street Journal, ignoring Barney's banter.
"There you go, sir! You're truly dressed for success now."
"Thank you, uh..."
"Barney, sir," he supplied, receiving 'Gator man's crisp twenty.
"Keep the change, Harvey."
For Gus, 'Gator man had a disdainful glare. He entered the lobby muttering something about the city needing to keep homeless riffraff off the streets.
During a lull, Barney offered Gus a shoeshine.
"Son, these here shoes ain't much worth shinin', 'specially with these holes in the bottom. Besides, I can't pay."
"Oh, no, sir. I didn't make myself clear. I'd like to shine your shoes for free."
For years, Gus had felt invisible. Upon his return from Vietnam after the war, he found himself an unwelcome reminder to many Americans of a time they would rather forget. He became an object of wrath for some, the only tangible way to express their frustration over disagreeable government policies.
He came home a changed man. He'd seen things no man should see. Once home, he wrestled with confusion. His own daddy had been in World War II, and he was a hero when he came home. Gus was angry. He'd been honored to serve his country, and yet he'd come home to ridicule and humiliation.
Eventually his wife decided she didn't like the new Gus, and she filed for divorce. Soon everything that had ever meant anything to him was gone, including his self-respect. Now over three decades later, he found himself without a family, a home, a job -- even without the will to care enough to be angry anymore.
Suddenly, he realized Barney was peering at him with concern. "You okay, sir?"
"How come you call me sir? Who am I, Barney? Who am I that you bother to give this old homeless bum the time of day?" Unbidden tears threatened to spill from Gus's eyes.
"Why, you're a human being, sir. God uniquely designed you, and He knows your name. Just like you listened and called me by the right name, He listens to you. He cares about you."
Gus was stunned. He'd been lost even to himself for over half his life, and this young pup had just thrown him a life preserver.
"I want to hear more 'bout this God of yours, but first... How'd you do that? How'd you see past the bum? Why didn't you look straight through me, or look away like everybody else?" Earnest blue eyes searched Barney's.
Barney smiled. "When I first saw you today, you reminded me of my Grampa. He fought in Vietnam. When he came back to the States, it was awful for him. It got so bad, he ended up on the streets for awhile."
It was Gus's turn to smile.
"My formal name is Barnabus. It means 'encourager.' Grampa called me his 'little encourager.' He said I gave him a reason to come home."
Gus swallowed hard.
Barney continued. "I guess that's when I decided no matter what else I do in life, I will always encourage others."
Smiling broadly, Gus spoke past the lump in his throat. "You gave me back my life today, Barney. You're my hero."
Knowing both the freedom of surrender and the pain of resistance, Cheri desires to bring God's hope to others suffering in life's deserts. She and husband Wayne have been blessed with four children and three grandchildren. Contact Cheri at firstname.lastname@example.org