a place in my heart.
When I was 15 my family took a vacation out West; a two week excursion to start in Portland and make our way south through Oregon into Redding, California – where I am from. After two days in Redding we were driving I-5 north in the rain and I was sitting in the back of mini van looking out the window at the world disappearing behind. Cars dodged back and forth to leave the interstate, or get on, but there was one man walking along the shoulder against traffic. He had a hat pulled low over his face, his shoulders slouched, and a card board sign that simply read San Jose. I started to wonder about this man – who he was, where did he come from, and if he had a family. I wrote songs back then… if you could call them that. I penned out one to recount that story and it’s the only one I really hold onto: “a place in my heart”.
Fast forward to 2009 at university, and I’m sitting in a professor’s office discussing an ethnography project with him. The outline of the project was simple – observe a group of people and put together a paper. I decided to put together observations of homelessness around the country. He frowned. “One thing I appreciate about you Lyle is your ambition and heart. You’re always ready to go and always go full speed, but this project is too big. I want it to be a current study you can do over the next few days.” We put together an idea to go through four different places in Charlotte and I brought something better to the table.
The idea settled in my mind, but I pushed it away in light of other things – but as our calling has a way of doing, it found me anyway. I volunteered at the Charlotte Rescue Mission, but I wanted something more hands on – more boots on the ground. Charlotte lends itself well to in-house programs and recovery, but little in the way of reaching out to these. A friend pointed me in the direction of Our Calling in Dallas, Texas and after a little investigation I asked if I could come out for two weeks and work alongside them – this would give me experience to bring to Charlotte, as well as help me in my long term academic goals by giving me a piece of the puzzle to displacement across the country.
I connected with a small street ministry that goes out on Friday evenings in Charlotte to hand out sandwiches and pray with anyone we found along Tryon. Charlotte is a pretty tame city. It’s spread out, but the center city is relatively small with a cluster of 30 or so buildings over 20 stories, and only about 7 over 50 stories. When it flurries, people go into lockdown mode, and every evening traffic is backed up to the north and east. It’s calm, pretty kind, filled with trees and greenery, rolling hills that weave throughout outlying neighborhoods that offer glimpses to a beautiful skyline. Yet, in Charlotte is the 211-06 project, which registered once as one of the most dangerous zip codes in the nation. The further you get from the lights of uptown, the darker the city gets – physically and metaphorically.
The homeless are friendly. You’ll be hard pressed to find a homeless man in Charlotte who isn’t a believer and a majority seek church on Sundays. I laughed and talked with a big fellow, Malachi, who told me about the fragrance shop he used to own… used to. Darrel spoke with me and Jacob and said over and over: “can’t be nothing but what you are… be proud, boys. head up and nobody but you can be you and that’s the best you can do. be proud.” I think I’m still a little surprised how quickly people are to tell you their life story. I live in a world of rigid facade. Nod, smile, talk about the weather – people know very little of my life, and I am generally bad at sharing. I keep my burdens, my struggles, my hurts a secret. I talk about what is ahead, or what could be. I laugh and joke and smile. There is no feeling of contempt and it rarely registers as conversation, but these men on the streets are eager for lots of reasons – shame, hurt, they want you to think of them as something more than broken… But more, they’re are alone.
I left home Thursday and drove 1000 miles to Dallas, Texas. I was welcomed with open arms and they were both excited and equally intrigued that I would come so far to work with them. Paul, a leader, said: “you’re really interesting… which is good because we always send the boring ones home.” But today I spent the morning going through the city and reaching out to the homeless. I found the same faces I found in Charlotte, and some of the same stories, but much worse. We were in a group of 12. Paul and I would go out and scout areas that looked uncertain or dangerous. We met many people. It was such a contrast to those who had hope and those who did not, how they looked after one another, but one stands out.
Paul and I went under a bridge in a rough side of town. We met a girl they had met before – 24, a prostitute and heroine addict, sleeping on a mattress under a busy bridge… Also, she was eight months pregnant. We talked to her for a while and finally persuaded her to let us take her to a clinic, to detox and have the baby in a safe place. She came with us and after a procedure they admitted her into the hospital. Just a bit of the story that will hopefully a better ending.
“The son of man did not come to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many” – Mark 10:45
Probably one of my favorite verses. There is so much more to say, but I want to curb with just this aspect of the story. Dallas has been fun and I have only been here a day. I have been given so much to think about, but this is just a snapshot. I go to the mountains to find solace and listen to God, but I think when i look into the lostness of humanity I see the face of Christ – not from a position of strength to weakness, but the reflection of his love through my heart into a dark world.
Grace and Peace.