By the Rev. Travis Boline
In October of 2012, I was on my way out to my car when I saw a homeless man walking with a cardboard sign in his back pocket. His clothes were extremely worn and dirty, as was his hat and hair.
“Excuse me, would you like something to eat?” I asked him.
He said he would. I introduced myself to him and he told me his name was Bryan.
I shook his hand and then took a bag out of my car. My church has a ministry called “Hungry Lambs” where we pack lunch bags with ready to eat items liked pop top meals, peanut butter crackers, cookies, fruit and/or nuts. We include in the bag a napkin, an eating utensil, a wet-wipe and a bible tract. As I gave him the bag, he smiled.
“I’m glad to meet you, Bryan,” I said.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said.
A couple of weeks later, I was teaching on a Wednesday night and Bryan walked into the church towards the end of the session. I saw him and smiled and welcomed him inside. He sat in the back of the church and pretty soon it was clear that he had been drinking. But he remained respectful and appropriately interacted with the teaching. After we finished, I welcomed him and asked him if he would like something to eat, pointing out that we had hot soup and bread available. While someone got him a plate, I introduced him to a few people and despite being slightly intoxicated, dirty and smelly, he was warmly welcomed.
He asked about the church and I shared a little bit about us and when our worship services were. I assured him that he was welcomed to join us on Sunday. I also offered him a small paperback Bible which he took. When we locked up and turned out the lights, I didn’t know if we’d see him again.
A few Sundays later, Bryan showed up at church. Same clothes, same big smile, same Bryan. I had spoken with a few people and mentioned that he might be worshipping with us and for them to be sure he was welcomed. I also asked my husband to sit with him because our worship service can be a bit confusing to newcomers. I wanted to make sure he felt comfortable with us even though I knew there would be many who may not be comfortable with him.
I asked several of the leaders of the church to be sure and introduce themselves to Bryan. He listened attentively and participated the best he could in the service and when it came time for communion, he came down to receive. Again, I had made the invitation for a meal and he responded. But I sensed that he knew that this was a very special meal—just by the look in his eyes.
After the service, as he was enjoying refreshments with the rest of the congregation, someone told me that he had placed a dollar in the offering plate when it came by.“Yeah, he pulled a wad of ones out of his pocket,” someone said cynically. All I could think was that it constituted his entire net worth, those fistful of dollars. It reminded me of the widow’s mite. It was a very generous gift and I felt honored that he had made it.
A name tag was made for Bryan and we told him it would be waiting for him next week. He came again and continued to come for the next few weeks. One Sunday, he showed up with a friend named Daniel. Bryan explained that he lived in the tent community behind the Walgreens and Daniel lived in the tent community behind our shopping mall. They were neighbors!
Daniel said that he was Catholic and so I knew the service would be somewhat familiar to him. Bryan was perfectly at home with the liturgy by this time and was obviously enjoying helping Daniel as he himself had been helped before. I also learned that when the offering plate came by, Bryan —as always—put his dollar in, Daniel just let it pass.
Bryan stopped the usher and asked him to bring the plate back and explained to Daniel, “No, this is the time that we give something.” Daniel grabbed the few coins that he had in his pocket and put them in the plate. Before I left the church that morning, I looked at the guest book and noticed that Daniel had signed it and that under “address” he simply wrote “homeless.”
By this time, Bryan was helping out before and after the service; setting up chairs and tables when they were needed. He even joined us for our monthly pot luck luncheons. I was so proud of how he had been welcomed by the congregation, and how he felt that this was his church. I was honored to be his pastor!
Christmas Eve was very special having Bryan with us. Some of the men had put together a plastic tub filled with firewood and matches. Another family put together a box of homemade Christmas cookies for him. I had told the congregation that we were not going to be showering Bryan with gifts for several reasons:
• He is a person, not a project
• He had nowhere to keep the things we gave him
• f we gave him something that looked too nice, it would open him up to being robbed or mugged.
• I wanted him to come to church for what Jesus could give him, not what we would give him.
One Sunday, Bryan came to church with a cut on his forehead. He explained that he had been attacked by some teenagers with a piece of pipe and they had stolen his tent and sleeping bag. One of our parishioners gave him a sleeping bag, pillow and flashlight to replace what was stolen and he was very grateful.
One particularly cold morning as I was driving to church, I saw Bryan heading down the road and I stopped and called to him. He said he was heading to church and I offered him a ride. I never once thought about how dangerous that might have been for me – I felt very safe with Bryan. While he was in the car with me, I learned that he had made enough money panhandling to get a hotel room for the night and get a good hot shower. He even had clean jeans on! I knew he felt good about being able to “dress” for church.
Bryan never asked for anything—other than food. From time to time he would stop in during the day to say hello to me and ask for a food bag. But never did he ask for money. A few times I allowed him to use the telephone to call his mother.
After Christmas Eve, we never saw Bryan again. He simply vanished. I didn’t see him on the street corners or walking around anywhere. I was so worried that something had happened to him and I had no way of finding out. So we prayed for him faithfully. Every time I passed the intersection that he often stood at I prayed for him.
Then, on February 22, I was checking my spam folder on my email and was about to hit “Delete All” when I noticed a subject line that read “My son Bryan [last name withheld]”. I stopped and opened it and read the following:
Hi my name is Ginger [last name withheld] and I want to thank you for the help you gave my son just before Christmas as he was homeless and lived in the woods and was walking past your church and you gave him a bag of food an other items it uplifted him and he began to attend the church and during the Christmas holidays he contacted me. I had moved from Florida to Georgia and had made attempts to contact him on a daily basis. He felt like I did not care or love him and nothing could have been further form the truth. I was so happy to hear from him and we both began to cry and thank God he called me. I was broke and had to wait until the day after Christmas to have him come to be with me in Georgia. I have had him here with me for the past few months and he seems to be getting better every day, he has not gained much weight but I guess that will come in time. He has wanted to thank you for the kindness and care you gave him but just has not had the words to express how heart felt his gratitude has been for everything you did for him. He wants you to know he thinks about you everyday and is thankful for everything that you did. I as well am thankful you saved his life he had been attacked by three teenagers and beaten with a metal pipe. You gave him shoes clothes and a sleeping bag.
I will be starting work soon and so will Bryan when we have funds we will be sending money so the church can further help others .
Thank you for all you did,
I was overjoyed to hear that not only was Bryan okay, but that he was off the streets and reunited with his mother! I forwarded the email to the whole church and immediately began getting responses that echoed my joy and relief.
The Lord was very gracious to send us this precious lamb to feed and to love for a season. I’d like to think that it was through the gift of community and friendship that Bryan was able to want better for himself and to desire a more stable environment to live in. We were privileged to play a small part in helping him find that.
The Rev. Travis Boline is rector of All Saints Anglican Church in Tallahassee, FL.