There I was, a 50-something woman of privilege, in front of the Salvation Army homeless shelter in a seedy neighborhood of Austin on a sultry summer evening, dutifully putting bright orange traffic cones out in the street. I was startled by a tough-looking female police sergeant, who pulled me aside and began berating me in an angry, piercing voice: “How many times do I have to tell you people you can’t park here? Am I going to have to take you downtown and book you?” As she pulled out her notepad and pencil, she demanded, “What is your name?”
This was my first experience on the Mobile Loaves and Fishes catering truck with a team from my church. We were there to feed the homeless. I was excited, curious and a little scared, not knowing what to expect. I was prepared for drunk or mentally ill, unkempt, smelly, cursing homeless people, but the prospect of being thrown in jail or ending up with a criminal record gripped me with disbelief and panic.
My first impulse was to blurt out, “But I’m innocent; I’ve never done this before; I’m just volunteering to do a good deed!” My hurt pride longed to fire back: “You can’t talk to me like that! Do you know who I am? I’m a physician and a respected member of the community. You are way out of line, and I’m going to complain to your supervisor!”
But as I stood there helplessly, I could see that this woman was exhausted and must have had a very bad day. Something told me that she would not be impressed by my credentials. I, on the other hand, was very intimidated by her authoritative voice and the large revolver on her hip. In what sounded to me like a very meek and tiny voice I replied: “But, I’ve never been out here before. I don’t want to cause any trouble. We will gladly move if you just tell us where we can park....”
At that moment, I breathed a sigh of relief as Hilary, the experienced team leader, walked up to us and asked, “What’s wrong, officer?” I gladly stepped aside.
We ended up moving the truck around the corner into a parking lot. I began handing out bags of peanut butter and jelly and bologna sandwiches, milk, chips and apples to the eager, hungry homeless people who had gathered when they saw the familiar white and silver truck. They were ragged, dirty, often toothless and smelling of alcohol, but I was deeply moved by their politeness, cheerfulness and sincere gratitude for the meager meal and offer of hygiene items such as toothbrushes and deodorant. Several responded to the handouts with a heartfelt “God bless you, Ma’am!” I felt ashamed that I had underestimated the human spirit of these children of God.
Amid this surreal scene, I reflected to myself that these poor, unfortunate men and women had no one to rescue them when they had a run-in with an angry police sergeant. They had no degree, no connections, no bank account to impress or protect themselves. My encounter with the sergeant had given me a chance to stand in their worn shoes and experience the helpless vulnerability, anxiety and shame they must feel.
Later that night back in my own home, having gratefully slipped between the clean sheets of my comfortable bed, I said a prayer for those men and women I had encountered. But I thanked God, that by his grace, I was not one of them. Then, as I replayed in my head the frightening scene with the sergeant, I suddenly grasped the real lesson God wanted me to learn out on the streets.
I was supposed to be there in the name of Jesus Christ for those homeless people. That’s what it was all about. Christ had emptied himself of his divine importance when he was arrested and put on trial. He could have said, as I had wanted to: “You can’t treat me this way! Do you know who I am?” He could have said: “I’m the Son of God, and I’m just healing people and teaching them about God’s love for them.” Instead, he was silent. Jesus allowed his opponents to mock him, scourge him and finally crucify him.
I felt the sharp sting of embarrassment and remorse for my pride and need to defend myself; I also felt a heightened awe at the humility, courage and love for humanity Jesus had shown us. God’s option is always for the poor and defenseless; he was one of them. What a lesson I had learned: my compassion was stretched another notch, and God taught me how much I still needed to grow as a Christian. And yes, I also said a prayer for that overworked and underpaid police sergeant.