David and I were recently on vacation in Argentina. Hiking in Patagonia has been a dream of ours for some time, and we were so excited to finally get to experience it. We had a wonderful time hiking with view after view of beautiful mountains and lakes.
At the end of each day we’d drag ourselves back to the hotel for a hot shower and then venture out for dinner. As we wandered the local town looking for restaurants we saw more dogs than we could count. There were stray dogs everywhere, wandering into stores, sitting outside restaurant entrances, or sleeping under the awnings of closed shops. We saw everything from St. Bernards to boxers to little Jack Russells and everything in between.
These dogs just broke my heart. So many were old and just looked like they had given up. So I’d stop and pet them or give them a little snack. Even David, who is as big a dog lover as me, got weary of my need to stop and at least say hello to each one. But I just couldn’t help myself.
Why don’t I do the same for homeless people?
Why don’t I feel the same need to stop and acknowledge each one with a smile or a hello?
Why don’t I feel compelled to share my food or buy them something to eat?
How is it my heart breaks for a stray dog but it stays cold toward my homeless brothers and sisters?
I was forced to face those questions a week ago when David and I joined six others to spend 72 hours living with the homeless of DC. It was no less than life-changing. We slept on the streets. We panhandled. We ate in food kitchens, church basements and in parks. We attended a church service and Bible study for the homeless. We sat on benches and in parks and under bridges. We were photographed by tourists while sleeping. We were alternately cursed at and ignored. We walked more than 10 miles a day to reach services that are spread throughout all corners of the district.
But mostly we talked to people. Lots and lots and lots of people. People of all ages and races and beliefs. People who were recently homeless and people who had spent their entire adult lives on the streets. People with mental illness and people with drug addictions. People who had been leading relatively ordinary lives until life took a turn for the worse.
And for the first time in too long it broke my heart. Wide open. So wide, in fact, that I now have someone who I consider a true friend who is homeless himself. He spent 14 years in prison for drug dealing and after serving his sentence, the next seven years on the streets of DC, where he still is today. He agreed to spend those 72 hours with us, helping us navigate the sometimes volatile areas where the homeless congregate. He shared his story with us, and introduced us to so many of the people he’s been living side by side with for years. He has given his life to Christ, and is trusting that God is leading him to a new stage in life. He had a job interview this week, and the team is praying for a new chapter for this now dear friend of ours.
Every person has a story. And every story is precious to the One who wrote it before the beginning of time. I was reminded of that last week. I was also reminded that the only thing standing between me and the streets is one bad decision or a few unfortunate turns in circumstances. I was reminded that I am them and they are me. They are my brothers and sisters, and as a Christ follower I am called to love and serve them.
And while dogs are infinitely easier to love than people, I need to get better at loving them both.