I did something this weekend that I’ve never done before. I stood on the street corner in Denver with a cardboard sign. Now why in the world would I do that? Let me tell you.
I’m on the board of Seeds of Hope. We’re a group of women who have it in our hearts to connect those who are willing to serve with those in need. Over the last 7 years, we’ve made Easter baskets, served Thanksgiving dinner to refugees from Burma and young men who’ve been through the ringer. We’ve raised money so a man could go on one, last trip with his kids before ALS ended his time here on earth. We regularly cook meals and store them away in our freezers so we can bring a warm meal to someone in need. I tell you this not to say, “Oh, look at us, we’re so great,” but just to let you in on what Seeds of Hope is all about, and to set the scene for my night on the streets.
This past weekend, our group decided to partner with a ministry called, Project I See You (http://www.projectiseeyou.org) so that we could meet the human beings behind the cardboard signs and rough, sometimes dirty exteriors we so often pass by on the streets. Project I See You was started by an amazing woman named Mercy Tucker. Mercy was a missionary in the Dominican with her family for 4 years, and she shared with us that while she was down there living with the poor, she often felt God’s presence so clearly and so near that it would physically cause them to fall to the ground. When she moved back to the Denver area, her family decided they wanted to be able to continue to live and interact with those who were impoverished and overlooked, and so they decided to live in an area of Denver called Five Points. Mercy knows many of the homeless in Five Points by name—she knows their stories and she has such a strong desire to help and to love them.
This past weekend, we teamed up with Mercy and Project I See You and headed to downtown Denver with her ministry partner, Angie, and most of the Seeds of Hope board. We wanted to come face to face with the homeless. We wanted to experience what it was like for them. We wanted to hear their stories. We wanted to show them that they were seen, heard and loved by not only us, but by the creator of the universe. When we headed out to the streets that night, we were told that we were going to be standing alone on a corner, like so many homeless do, and to write something down on a cardboard sign that we would hold up.
After thinking about it for a while, I decided to write, “This Could Be You”. I didn’t know when I wrote those words how much more deeply they would resonate in my heart only a few hours later.
When I stood alone on that corner, tired and cold, I went through an array of emotions. First being just how incredibly uncomfortable I felt—so much so that it almost made me nauseous. That feeling eventually gave way to something new—this feeling of being completely invisible. As the cars continued to stream by, it was like they couldn’t see me or my sign. It was like I’d disappeared off the face of the earth. After a while of that, I couldn’t help but start praying for the people in the cars because I wanted them to understand that this really could be them. That, had their lives been different—had their parents been less supportive or had their spouses died or had they served and fought in the war and turned to drugs to make the pain stop—this really could have been them.
At one point in the night, someone finally stopped.
In fact, they almost got into an accident trying to stop! A well-dressed young man pulled into a parking lot and made such an effort to run over and give me some money. It was one of the kindest and most compassionate things I’d ever experienced. I didn’t need his money, but what I did need (that I didn’t even know in that moment) was to feel like someone cared. He looked me in the eye when he put the money into my hand, and I felt seen for the first time that night. I felt like I mattered to him. Maybe he had once been that person on the corner, and maybe my sign “This Could Be You” touched him. I don’t know why he stopped, but it really moved me.
The rest of our weekend was spent walking the streets of Denver and hearing the stories of the homeless we met there. We spent some time in a shelter where I got to sit with a few women and hear their stories and learn more about the challenges they face on a daily basis—challenges we might not even think twice about! It was such a powerful experience and one that I really wish everyone could be a part of.
I couldn’t help but walk away from this whole experience feeling so grateful for the family I grew up in. We weren’t perfect, in fact my dad died when I was 3 (he was only 36), but I was so loved and deeply cared for. I was encouraged and told often by my mom, “If anyone can do it Michelle, you can do it”. I was able to go to college and then start a career and support myself. Growing up I was able to learn important life skills like cooking and laundry, I was taught to look people in the eye when speaking to them and to treat people with love and respect. I’ve always known that if life got too tough, I was always welcome in my parent’s or sisters’ home.
I would never be homeless because I had people in my life who would gladly take me and my family in.
But this, we must realize, is a luxury many do not have. For many Americans, if they mess up, if they lose a job, if something goes wrong…then that’s just it. There’s not a back up plan. There’s no one there to bail them out. The people I met on the streets and in the shelter experienced a much different upbringing than the one I had. Many of them grew up with abuse and drugs. Some of the people we met shared that they would watch their parent having sex with different people, and how at young ages they were forced to take care of the drug-addicted parent. No role models. No life lessons being taught. No homes to take them in if life got too tough.
The more I talked to these people in the shelter and one the streets, the more I realized that the sign I created at the beginning of the day—“This could be you”—was more true than even I’d realized.
Mercy and her team at Project I See You are hoping to turn a home in Denver into a transitional home for women. It would be a safe place that they could stay in for up to 3 months. Not only would they have a consistent bed to sleep in, but they’d have the opportunity to learn some of the basic life skills they might have missed out on. They’d learn to cook, practice interviewing for jobs and holding themselves with confidence and so much more—but most importantly, they would live in a home with people who see and hear them. They won’t be invisible anymore. Love has a way of doing that, doesn’t it? Even the smallest of actions, if done with love, can make the largest of impacts. Love has this way of saying, “I see you,” and being seen really can change everything.
I share this story with you all because I really want us as the Faithful Workouts’ community to come to know and love the poor in a new way—in a Jesus kind of way. There are so many verses in the Bible about the poor and impoverished and how we’re to care for them. How we shouldn’t respond to their situations with judgment or disgust, and how we cannot treat them like they are invisible just to assuage our own guilt or validate our pre-conceived notions about how they ended up there.
I walked away realizing that I have been given so much, and I want to step out, each day, knowing that God can use me in huge ways to help others. I want to give away what has been so abundantly given to me. In some cases, that may be finances. In some cases, a hot meal. In others, a listening ear or a hug or a smile. Give away what you’ve got, because in God’s kingdom, there’s always enough.
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Michelle is the founder of Faithful Workouts and The Fresh Table. She began her fitness career in 1984 and still loves to help people break free from fitness frustration and move towards a life that's full of physical and spiritual health. Michelle is married to Jeff and they have three children PLUS two lovable dogs and an ornery cat.