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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Apparently a Homeless Man Has Much to Offer

Recently Billy Ray Harris, a homeless man in Kansas City, made national news for his honesty and integrity.  As a way of saying thank you, many have donated to a fund to help this worthy individual (see http://www.giveforward.com/billyray/). Billy Ray has been a friend of mine since 2008.  The following is a personal journal entry I made in 2008 on the night I met Billy Ray.

Apparently a Homeless Man Has Much to Offer

Tonight I have been so lonely and empty.  I interviewed today for a job in Kansas City, a city I don't know, all alone, feeling the hurt of some very special people in my life.  I didn't have anyone to talk to, no one to eat dinner with, no one to do something with...all at a time that should be very exciting because of other things going on.  Lonely...empty.  I can't take this job even it it's offered.  I wouldn't be able to stand this kind of loneliness while traveling.  Then again, I'd be lonely anywhere right now no matter who I was with.


I asked the desk clerk where I could go to dinner where I could be around other people.  He directed me to a place called Country Club Plaza. As I arrived, my daughter Haley called, and I walked along the street with many other people while talking to her.  I was listening to her, and giving a half-hearted effort toward looking for some place where I could watch people or somehow feel part of a community.  I walked by a black homeless man who asked me for money, and it was very easy to say "not now" while I continued to talk on the phone.


Suddenly it hit me that I could ask a homeless man to have dinner with me.  I told Haley what I was about to do, and she let me off the phone.  I knelt beside the homeless man who was sitting on all his worldly possessions in a back pack.  He was begging for money, but he was also reading a newspaper.  There was something different about him.


I told him I was from out of town, and quite frankly I was kind of lonely.  I told him it would be an honor for me if he would have dinner with me.  He made excuses, looked uncomfortable, but with some small prodding, he said, "Well, I have to be somewhere by 8:30, but I guess I could do some carry out."  (The time was 7PM.)  We started walking together.  He was articulate, intelligent, engaging...just homeless.  I met Billy Ray.


Billy Ray took me to a famous BBQ place in KC.  According to him, you're not considered a native of the area until you've had KC BBQ.  A few people stared at Billy Ray as we walked in.  He wasn't exactly the dirtiest homeless person I've ever met, although he did have a slight odor.  Honestly, I didn't care.  I saw in him a companion who was saving me from something...but we'll get to that.  He was my friend, and I was truly happy to be with him.


We talked.  He is from Wichita Falls Texas, moved to KC, painted houses, divorced, lost his job, and became homeless.  One winter he nearly froze because the parks and recreation people came and took all his stuff...his sleeping bag, his blankets, everything.  He was so distraught he didn't know what to do.  As he wandered aimlessly down the side walk, a woman pulled up next to him and asked if he would like the stuff in her trunk.  Included in the stuff was a brand new sleeping bag.  He couldn't take everything, of course.  He could take only the things he could carry.  After all, Billy Ray is homeless, and homeless people have to travel lightly.  Billy Ray doesn't believe in asking God for his needs.  He prays only for guidance.  He figures God already knows his needs, and God has never let him down yet.  He keeps a positive attitude.


I asked Billy Ray if he was lonely.  He is.  He talked about the difference between being lonely and being alone.  It seems that we both kind of needed each other tonight.  I fought back tears, many times unsuccessfully throughout the meal.  I tried not to weep openly, and yet tears streamed down my face more than once, and my eyes were moist nearly all the time (as they are even now).  Billy Ray didn't care, and he didn't probe.  He just listened, and talked, and made me feel like it was ok to be me, including tears.


We talked about sin.  I think he brought up the topic, but I can't remember for sure.  According to Billy Ray, the worst sin a person could commit is unfaithfulness.  We spoke of our specific issues of guilt, forgiveness, and renewed faith.  I was so surprised by his wisdom.  He spoke truth to me, but he somehow mixed in the right amount of grace.  I'm not sure how he did it, but he didn't let me off the hook for sin in my life, and yet I never felt he was judging me.  Never once did I feel that I wasn't his friend any more.  Oh how I cried.  We talked about forgiveness and starting anew, and...so many things.  I think I realized at dinner that we're all homeless in some ways.  In fact, Jesus was homeless, literally.  It's just that some of us are homeless because we've lost our bearings and the compass of our souls while others simply lose a roof over their heads.  Billy Ray has the biggest roof of all over his head...or at least that's what he said.


I asked Billy Ray if he was happy.  I told him that when I see a homeless person, I never really know how I can help.  But then again, if Jesus was homeless, and if a homeless person is happy, maybe my help really isn't help.  By the way...he's happy, but he doesn't want to be homeless.  He has dignity and pride in the positive sense of the word.


We talked about the real challenges of a homeless person finding work.  He said that a homeless person can't exactly get a job in a restaurant because it's difficult to practice good hygiene.  People don't want you around the food, and he wouldn't do anything to embarrass an employer.  It's hard to get a job where you have to be clean.  He can't always take a bath.  Sometimes the kids will soap the fountain near where I found him so they can frolic in the suds.  Billy Ray gets in and plays with them...but his real purpose is to take a bath.  Anyway, unless a job comes with a uniform that is cleaned by the employer, a homeless guy has a hard time finding a job.  About the only area where you can come to work dirty is in construction.  And it's hard to find a construction job in a location that has some of the needs of a homeless person (like shelters and food kitchens). 


I asked Billy Ray what a person could do to really help a homeless person.  I honestly didn't know.  I said, Let's say for example that I had $50-$100 to give you.  How could that help you the most.  His answer surprised me.  He said what he needed most was a cell phone.  You can't get a job if people can't call you.  Without a cell phone, you have to go there every day to see if they're hiring.  Then if you skip a day, they may hire someone else since you weren't here.  You see, most people don't give the same courtesy to a homeless guy that they would give to someone else...either that, or they just don't know how the world works for a person who doesn't have an address or a phone #.


So Billy Ray and I went to find a cell phone.  We were looking for one of those pre-paid things where you get X amount of minutes, and when those are done you can buy X amount of minutes more.  We came close to making a deal with the sales clerk when I wondered if I could add minutes to his phone when he needed them.  Could I continue to help Billy Ray even though I was so far away?  Then it struck me.  Why not add Billy Ray to my cell phone plan?  Instead of him scraping and saving every possible minute, why not pay $10/month and just let him be my family.  Heck, we even look alike.  People might think we're brothers or something! 


On this night, Billy Ray was more than my brother.  He was an angel sent from God.  He even told me that maybe we met tonight because I needed him more than he needed me.  I cried again, because he was so right. 


When a person loses their way, God has a unique way of starting the process of recovery.  I needed Billy Ray tonight.  My night went from the worst possible to one of the coolest experiences of my life.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm still lonely.  But at least tonight I felt like I had a soul again.  Maybe there's hope after all.  Billy Ray may be homeless in terms of walls and a roof, but I needed a home for my heart.