Worthy of a Hug
When a great story presses on your heart, it can change you. From then on, the world around you never looks the same.
Last month I attended the February meeting of Lifework Leadership of South Florida. The theme for the morning’s meeting was Compassion. We began our day by boarding a bus to tour some local Fort Lauderdale facilities that provide resources to the homeless. Our tour guide, Robin Martin, the Executive Director of Hope South Florida, shared information and anecdotes, to help us understand the magnitude of the need in the community. He also humanized the situation: sometimes financial, sometimes medical, often tragic, and destined to continue, unless we as business leaders DO something.
At the Broward Partnership for the Homeless, we toured the facility, met members of the staff, and observed people receiving medical care, meals, and job search support. I mentioned to several people from Lifework the experience that Donna and I had volunteering in the Broward Partnership kitchen. As we handed out meals, everyone was polite, and many thanked us for being there. About 30% of the people looked like what we expected: ill-fitting or dirty clothes, and a vacant look in their eyes. The rest could have been our neighbors, or people we’d pass on the street and never imagine their plight. I told my Lifework associates of our impression that they were just like us, and “There but for the grace of God go I.”
When all the buses returned, the Lifework meeting reconvened, and we were treated to a dose of Tony Campolo, a professor, pastor and sociologist. He got our attention from the beginning.
He stepped to the lectern and said “While you were sleeping last night 45,000 kids around the world died of starvation and malnutrition. And you don’t give a shit.” He paused and stared from face to face in the audience. “And the worst part is that you’re more concerned that I said the word “shit “than the fact that 45,000 kids died last night!”
Ouch. I know I wasn’t the only one in the audience staring at the floor, and afraid to look anyone else in the eye.
Dr. Campolo then talked about the homeless and said that the majority look just like you and me. At this point, I lifted my head and nodded enthusiastically. Because I served lunch – one time – at a homeless shelter, I was an expert. Yep, they’re just like us. But Dr. Campolo wasn’t finished. “But it’s easy to help someone who looks just like you. Sure, “there but for the grace of God go I.” But what about the people who look nothing like you? Can you minister to them? Can you love them?”
His words hit me like a stinging slap. And yes, he used the exact same phrase I had about grace. I started staring at the floor all over again.
Dr. Campolo then told the story of an experience he had on Chestnut Street in downtown Philadelphia. He was walking down the street when he saw a homeless man coming straight toward him. The man was wearing layers of filthy clothing, with a greasy beard, and he was yelling at someone who wasn’t there. He staggered towards Dr. Campolo, and shouted, “Hey mister, you want some of my coffee?” He held up a styrofoam cup from MacDonald’s. Dr. Campolo wanted no part of the coffee, but knew that the right thing to do was to affirm the man’s generosity. Dr. Campolo held his breath, and said, “OK.” He took a small sip and returned it to the man. He said, “You’re feeling pretty generous today. You’re giving away your coffee to people you don’t even know. What’s gotten into you?” The man answered, “The coffee this morning was especially delicious. I figure if God gives you something this good, you ought to share it with somebody else.”
Dr. Campolo groaned. He knew he was being set up to give the man ten dollars. He figured he’d play the game, so he said, “You want something from me, don’t you?” The man said, “Yeah, I do.” As Dr. Campolo reached for his wallet, the man continued, “I want a hug!”
Dr. Campolo put his arms around the man and the man hugged him back. After a minute, it was clear that the man was not going to let go. Dr. Campolo was aware of people passing by, staring, and he was embarrassed. The bear hug continued, but little by little Dr. Campolo’s embarrassment began to fade, as he sensed the words of Jesus, “I was hungry, did you feed me? I was naked, did you clothe me? I was sick, did you care for me? I was that bum you met on Chestnut Street, did you hug me? For inasmuch as you failed to do it to the least of these, you failed to do it unto me.”
When Dr. Campolo finished, you could have heard a pin drop. Craig Huston, Lifework’s Executive Director, asked us to discuss Dr. Campolo’s message with the people at our table. We sat in uncomfortable silence for several minutes. Gradually, people started to share their take-aways. As the discussion continued, I thought about the number of people I passed regularly, at intersections and on city streets. Sometimes I’d slip two or three dollars into a dirty hand, say a quick “God bless you,” and then roll up my window or continue to walk on by. No name. No connection.
Since that day, I’ve compared notes with other Lifework members. Some have dropped off clothes at a localshelter. Some have passed out grocery gift cards. But we’ve all been conscious of shaking hands and asking names. We no longer see homeless things on the corner. Now it’s Nate. And Susan. And Trumaine. As Dr. Campolo suggested to us, each one is a sacred presence. A person. A child of God. Worthy of our help… and worthy of a hug.