Years ago, I began praying this prayer each day: God, let me see people the way you see them.
God answered that prayer through a homeless man named Patrick.
It was June 6, 2004, and at the time I was living in Wellington, New Zealand. I was walking home from our evening church service and it was already quite late at night. All of us young people tended to linger around after the services, never in any hurry to leave.
I lived on a street called ‘The Terrace’, presumably named because it runs like a ledge alongside a tremendous hillside of the city. The walk back to my apartment usually involved several considerable stairways, or quite a steep uphill trudge. There was however, a sneaky little shortcut I sometimes took. The James Cook Hotel, also on The Terrace, had an elevator that conveniently connected to the main street downtown. On this night, feeling lazy, I decided to walk a little further on flat ground, then let the lift carry me closer to home.
As I walked into the alcove and approached the elevators, I clearly felt God tell me this: Ask the man if he needs help.
What’s that? What man?
Then, I looked to my left, and there he was. How had I not seen him there as I walked in?
Back turned to me, he was digging through a crate of commercial refuse, pulling out some choice pieces of cardboard.
“Excuse me”, I said, with some tremble to my voice.
No reply. He carried on as if he hadn’t heard me at all.
What now, God?
“Excuse me, Sir. Can I help you?”
Confused about why God had asked me to help to this man, I just stood there, unsure of what to do next. Moments later, the man turned around and jumped when he saw me. I had startled him.
His salt and pepper hair was scraggly, and his face wrinkled and weathered. Yet, his eyes were so shiny they sparkled. He wore too-short jeans, rolled up like clam-diggers, and his bare feet were stuffed into worn-out loafers. It’s way too cold for bare feet, I thought. As he looked at me, he appeared to be even more confused than I was.
“Can I help you with anything?”
In reply, he began to mumble something indiscernible. He barely finished his first phrase before I understood why he had not answered me. He wasn’t ignoring me – he was deaf.
He continued speaking with obvious urgency and pointing out onto the main street. It became very clear that he did need something – badly. I had no idea what though.
At a complete loss of understanding, I pulled my journal out of my satchel. I scribbled down: do you want some food? It was the first thing I thought to offer.
Taking my pen and notebook, he wrote down: My name Patrick.
Of course, first thing’s first. We should definitely introduce ourselves. He smiled at me, and I wrote: Shannon.
Then he began to draw me a picture of a few squares, afterwards pointing out towards the main street. Shaking my head to say, I don’t understand, he wrote “card” and “cash” beside his drawings.
“Do you need some money?”
Pulling my wallet out, I knew I didn’t have much, but planned to give it all to him.
No, No. He shook his head and hands. He started walking out of the alcove, towards the street, waving for me to follow him. He doesn’t want my card or my cash, but he wrote ‘card’ and ‘cash’? This makes no sense, I thought.
I shrugged off my questions and stepped off to catch him.
As we walked down the street together, I sensed other people’s reactions as they saw Patrick, and as they saw me walking alongside him. Some looked away from him, or through him altogether. Others looked at me intently and with questioning eyes, as if to ask me if everything was alright. Why would a 24 year old girl be walking alongside a homeless man late at night? I didn’t know the answer to that question myself, so I could hardly fault others for wondering the same. It was clear though – people looked at Patrick a certain way, and it was obvious.
After walking for a while, he stopped in front of a bank. He motioned for me to put my bank card in to unlock the nighttime security doors.
Wait a minute. I had offered you money, and you shook your head ‘no’. Now you want me to go into an ATM with you? I felt conflicted about opening the door. Was he going to rob me? Did he want everything I had?
Seeming to read my thoughts, he shook his head frantically. Then, he pointed inside the doors. For whatever reason, he was desperate to get into that bank. He wrote “Bag Sleep” in my notebook. Although I didn’t understand, with a deep breath, I slipped my card into the slot and the doors clicked open.
Patrick gave a giddy jump as he darted inside. Going immediately to the ATM, he pushed on the advertisement above the machine. A panel flung inwards, revealing a secret space above the machine. I had never known that was there. From within, Patrick pulled out a large and tattered plastic bag, and showed me the contents: a winter jacket and a sleeping bag.
His only belongings in the whole world.
He had tucked them away for hiding during the daytime, but had not managed to snag them back before the bank doors locked for the night. With the ATM doors only opening for those who insert a bank card, he had no way of getting inside without someone’s help. I wondered, how many people had he already asked to let him inside? Wow. God. You knew he needed help. That’s why you told me to ask. I had come across Patrick in the act of scavenging cardboard to keep himself warm that night. But – until God specifically told me to talk to him, I had not even seen him there.
Not wanting to leave my new friend, I pointed back to my scribbled note, asking if he wanted some food. This time, instead of shaking his head no, he gave an emphatic yes – rubbing his stomach with a big smile on his face.
We made our way towards the local variety store. On the way, Patrick did something outrageously funny. At several stores along the way, he would point to the storefront, then make the ridiculous gesture of grabbing his own back collar and waistband, then scooting a few steps and flinging himself forward. Dramatically! Through his charade, he was pointing out all the places that had kicked him out. His expressions were priceless. It was hilarious. But it was also heartbreaking.
When we reached the shop and walked inside, Patrick looked a bit timid, perhaps unsure of how this was supposed to work. So, I began holding up different foods to ask if he wanted any of them. Shaking his head, he opened his mouth wide. Ohhhh. Gotcha. He had no teeth. I hadn’t noticed that detail before. I told Patrick he could get whatever he wanted, making a sweeping motion across the store with my arm. He happily decided on some meat pies, chocolate milk, and cookies.
After leaving the store, Patrick walked straight over to another ATM on the street. He pointed to it, then made a gesture as though he was taking out money out of a wallet and giving it to me. Then, he pointed back out to the street again. I shook my head, saying I didn’t understand. I pulled out my notebook and pen, and he wrote:
“Tuesday Next 2 week 15th”
“What happens in 2 weeks?” I replied on paper.
He drew a couple pictures on one of the pages, and again – I had no idea what he meant. Then, he wrote: “Sister Soup & Kitchen Tory St 7:30 am 8 am open…4:30 pm 4:45 pm $1″. I realized that he had drawn pots of soup! He was telling me the location, the meal times, and the cost for a meal.
“Do you go there to eat?”
A nod. Yes. Again, he made the gesture of taking money out of a wallet and putting it into my hand.
I finally understood. He was telling me he would receive money on the 15th, and if I met him at the Soup Kitchen, he would pay me back – for this small little meal. I was humbled. And oh so sad. Mostly, I was amazed at his beautiful heart and kindness. Here, this homeless, toothless, deaf man with nothing to his name was concerned about paying me back.
“Please no, Patrick. I don’t want you to pay me back. But – I will come visit you.” Between our rudimentary scribbles to one another, we determined that I would find him at the soup kitchen the following Saturday.
We spent a little more time together that night, munching on meat pies and sharing what limited conversation we could.
“11/5/1955” was an important detail he wanted to share with me: his birthday. As we sat there, I saw Patrick. I really saw him. I also saw a precious glimpse through God’s eyes, at how He looked upon this dear child of His. Dirty, unkempt – an eyesore to those who looked at him in the street – but, all I could see was beauty. God made him beautiful. I could also see how much Patrick longed for connection. How he longed to be known. When I first asked him if he wanted food, his first priority was to tell me his name.
Meeting Patrick was a very special answer to my prayer. And, it was only the beginning of how God began to open my eyes to the way He views us. When I returned home late that night, I googled ‘Soup Kitchen Tory Street Wellington‘. I found that Patrick was referring to the Sisters of Compassion Soup Kitchen.
One curious detail in this story: before I had left Canada for New Zealand, I had emailed this very organization to inquire about volunteering. They had replied that I could come by when I arrived and go from there. I had been in New Zealand for three months already, but had not yet followed through. God was reeling me in! Having met Patrick, and at his urging, I went to that soup kitchen for the first time the following Saturday. I saw Patrick again, and from then on I became a regular face at that place. I was there all the time. I helped serving coffee and tea, washing dishes, sweeping floors and other small jobs, but all in all, I was an unimpressive worker. My heart grew so connected with the guests of that kitchen, making some of the most incredible friends I’ve ever had. Every visit ended with a full heart and cramped-up cheeks from smiling so much. Often times I’d get caught up in chatting, then feel the need to excuse myself ‘back to work’, but – one of the beautiful Sisters would wave me back and tell me to stay. Sit. Talk. Engage. Those Sisters poured out their hearts and lives on a daily basis – modelling compassion in the most beautiful way. They saw people the way God sees them. They saw them. They prayed for them. They loved them. Each one.
This became the way I saw people too. Meals and volunteering at the soup kitchen turned into street visits with so many of these folks. There was the hilarious John. And Sam, the vibrantly smiley man with the red bicycle helmet. Fred, who made the decision in his 70s to become a baptized follower or Christ. Sweet Angela, with the most missional heart; she made sandwiches from her limited means to hand out to kids on the streets. Dierdre and ‘Richie Rich’, who searched the city for scrap metal with their wheelbarrow, smiling all the way. (The lovely Richard died the next year; a very tragic story in itself. Alongside his family and loved ones, I saw him buried on a Marae in a traditional Maori funeral.) Then there was Pete, the gentle giant with dreadlocks, who walked with a limp from being stabbed during his gangbanger days. And James, who wore black leather, head-to-toe, and always made a point of making sure I remembered his daughter’s name: Tamara Awhina. This mix of souls were some of my favourite friends when I lived in New Zealand for these two years. We’d meet together, both at the soup kitchen’s weekly ‘evangelism’, on the streets late at night, or in ‘the catacombs’ hangout. Often times I would read the Bible to grown men, with tears in their eyes because it brought back memories of when their grandmas used to read the scriptures to them as children. It was a beautiful thing.
Jesus was with us all, in whatever state we were in. Sometimes there were hardships. Often, there were tears. Some of my friends abused alcohol, or misused solvents to cope with their state. But I always sensed God’s overwhelming love for them. And I loved them so much.
The most beautiful thing to me, is that, in spending time with these friends – friends, who without God’s leading I may never have come to know – I grew so much in my understanding of God. The Bible tells us that we are all made in His image. And, while the popular musical Les Mis so eloquently says, to love another person is to see the face of God, it was really God who said this to us first…
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Some final notes – I want to be clear about this: I originally thought that volunteering at the Soup Kitchen would be a way to show God’s love to others, but I was loved so greatly in return, and received so much more than I gave. I was always treated with honour and dignity by these friends, despite the stereotypes and concerns others had about them.
I also want to mention that I struggled somewhat with sharing this story. I have not told many people about my experiences with homeless friends or soup kitchen patrons. For one, now that I am living in rural small town Canada, it just doesn’t naturally come up in conversation. But also, there is some discomfort with telling a story that may make it seem like I was some sort of a ‘do gooder’. It wasn’t that kind of a relationship at all, although through Christ I do believe that in our interactions with others, we can do good. It just wasn’t a one way thing, and I worried about sharing this story (and others) in way that makes it seem so.
What changed my mind and made me want to share about Patrick now? Well, this past Sunday our Pastor was preaching on the topic of compassion. It was a powerful and moving message. If you would like to listen for yourself, you can do so here. More than that, it unearthed a weight of emotions I hold deep inside. Talking about people who are isolated, looked-down upon, forgotten and unseen reminded me of these friends I miss so much. I became completely overwhelmed in memories of these precious people with whom I no longer have contact. I also relived the sadness of realizing how people look past people “like this” – how they look through them and outright ignore them. Before God changed the eyes of my heart, I did the same thing. But, when I made a point to pray for God to let me see people how He sees them, these were the sorts of people He led me to. In short, my Pastor’s sermon on compassion, brought back memories of the Compassion Centre in Wellington, run by the Sisters of Compassion…and it made me feel like the time was right to share some thoughts on compassion. We need a whole lot more of it in this world. I suppose my hope is that it might make people, myself included, open ourselves up a little more.
Personally, I am recommitting myself to pray that same prayer more regularly. In closing, I dare you to pray this with me too:
Lord God, compassion comes from your very heart. It’s not just a part of you – it’s your substance. It is who you are. You are love. Forgive me for all the times I look at people and miss the beauty you’ve put inside them. Forgive me for forgetting – in my anger, in my impatience, in my busyness, in my self-absorption – that each person I encounter is made in your image. Forgive me, not just for forgetting this – but for willfully denying this truth when I feel justified in thinking poorly of someone else. Forgive me Lord for the way I am unloving towards you, by failing to show love to those around me. In my interactions with people from every walk of life, from every tribe, every tongue, every nation – may I be reminded that you lovingly created each person, with purpose. May this truth remain deeply rooted in my heart, and bloom forth in my life. Lead me. Direct my steps, my words and my actions. May I be your hands and feet of love in this world. Amen.
*Note: the photos shown are actual pictures from the notebook showing my first ‘conversations’ with Patrick.