Last Sunday morning was exquisite. Larry and I were staying at the Renaissance in downtown Chicago and I had the pleasure of waking up whenever I wanted to a quiet room with coffee brewing on the desk. I got to take a shower and get dressed at a leisurely pace with no children fighting in the other room. The TV was tuned to some coverage of the presidential candidates instead of Sponge Bob or Hannah Montana. There was snow spinning and twirling over the city view we had from our hotel window. All was right in my little world.
After lounging around our hotel room for the morning, we decided to head out onto the streets and find a casual place for a little brunch. We stepped outside into what we later found out was 16 degree weather, with a windchill factor of -5. We pulled our wool coats tight, turned up our collars and braced ourselves against the 35 mph winds and flurries of snow. As I adjusted my gloves, I prayed a silly, silent prayer of thanks for the impulse to pull my tights on under my jeans that morning. Walking through the city we were flanked and passed by a plethora of Bears fans and Cheeseheads, decked out in their winter gear, carry blankets and wearing their jerseys over their coats as they walked to Soldier Field. After just a block and 1/2 we were about ready to turn back and simply eat breakfast at the hotel when we spied a small shop on the corner, Corner Bakery Cafe. We could see customers huddled together as they exited with steaming hot coffee in hand and we knew we had found our destination.
We approached the ever-present-in-Chicago revolving door and we were forced to step aside as the side door opened and a manager briskly escorted a homeless man out onto the sidewalk. "Now, see what you've done. I don't have a choice now. I have to call the police. You can't come in here," she declared as she turned past us and went back to her post behind the counter. I could see the clientele at the tables absorbed in the drama as if it were part of their dining entertainment. Whether he had come in and started panhandling among the seated customers or whether he had simply been looking for a warm place to stand for a moment, we will never know.
We entered the cafe and as we walked to the counter I mumbled to Larry that if I had been living on the street in these temperatures I would probably risk arrest for a moment of warmth also. We started to place our order and I began to scan the room for a table. It was crowded and I asked Larry to order so I could grab a spot when it became available. Larry handed me my coffee cup so I could fill it and as he did, the thought occurred to me that I should buy this man outside a coffee. I asked for another cup and left to go fill them up. Not knowing what he would want in it I simply poured a little cream and grabbed a lid. The coffee was just brewed, smelled amazing and I could feel the heat through the cup as it warmed my fingers. I was starting to feel glad that I had acted on the impulse to get some for this man.
As a I pushed through the revolving door, he stood up and thrust his cup toward me. "I don't have cash," I said (which I didn't), "but I did buy you some coffee." I held out my gift. He looked at me incredulously. "I don't drink coffee," he stated blankly. I was momentarily thrown but quickly recovered remembering how the coffee's heat had radiated through the cardboard cup. "Well, even if you don't drink it...it's very hot and just holding it will really help warm your hands up for a little while," I said optimistically. "I don't drink coffee," he repeated insistently. "If you go back in and get me some hot chocolate, I'll drink that but I don't drink coffee." I was flustered. "I...I...I was just trying to help, man..." I stammered.
I pushed back through the revolving door (what is it with Chicago and revolving doors?) and as I was thrust back into the cafe I felt my face flush with heat. I looked around and saw curious stares. I could see people trying to piece together the conversation I had just shared with the homeless man in their minds. I wanted to shout it to them verbatim to stop the gawking and perhaps to garnish some favor. Tears started to well up in my eyes and I couldn't figure out why I was reacting so violently to this rejection.
Part of me was angry. "What an ungrateful little bastard" was one of the phrases floating around in my subconscious. Another part was slightly humiliated. Were people thinking I was a gullible little bleeding heart or that I was foolish?
Then another thought overtook me. Was I being condescending toward this man by assuming he could use a cup of coffee and not even bothering to find out what his real need was? Or even his desire? Why did his preferences and tastes not matter to me? If he were one of my friends, a person a loved, I would have asked him not just what he needed but what he wanted. When did I decide that a homeless person shouldn't get a choice in what is given to them...that it simply didn't matter.
I am haunted by this and have been since my encounter with this man on the streets of Chicago. I see a need for a change. I thought I was socially conscious, caring for those in need and genuinely moved by those facing hardship. What I discovered was that while I was moved it was still as a stranger, not in the love that Christ has for them. If I loved them, my gifts would take into consideration not only their needs but their preferences, what they like and what they love. And while it would be easy now to beat myself over the head for my insensitivity, I am thankful for this new conviction and the opportunity to grow and see things in a new way. I also know myself well enough to see that simply making the commitment to act on this new perception would not work. This is a change that the Holy Spirit is making and will sustain in me. I am praying for a new redemption day and that it begins in me.