The Summer I Learned How to Love (More)

(The following was previously published in LIVE, Purpose, and Good New Northwest.)

“Mama, you should come and serve breakfast with me at the mission in the morning. We start at 9:30.” Nineteen-year-old Elizabeth cornered me as I was getting ready for bed. Inside, I groaned. After wrapping up a busy season of ministry, I’d planned to spend the next morning sipping coffee and catching up on some reading. But how could I say no to her request? So the next morning, I drove downtown, plunked four quarters into the parking meter, and walked into a whole new world.

Elizabeth introduced me to her friends right away: Skeeter, a lanky young man with an infectious grin. And Gary, whose street name is No One. “I’ll never call you ‘No One,’” I vowed. “You’re Gary.” But Gary didn’t grin. His teeth were missing, knocked out in a fight by the butt of a rifle. And Jesse. Jesse’s street name is Ogre. At 6’7” or so, with long hair and a beard, the name seemed to fit him.

That morning, as I raced from table to table balancing plates of sausage gravy and biscuits, an unspeakable joy rose up inside of me. I couldn’t stop smiling! It was true: “Those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed” (Proverbs 11:25, NIV). I decided to volunteer two days a week serving coffee.

One morning, I bought four dozen roses to give away to the clients. Two blocks from the mission, I saw Jesse, walking down the street, ranting profanities into his imaginary cell phone. I pulled over and parked my car. “Jesse,” I hollered, “could you help me carry this box?” I didn’t really need help.

Jesse looked up. “Sure,” he said, moving from wherever he was in his mind to being quite present with me. I smiled to myself, imagining passers-by seeing a 5’1” woman in a rose-pink jacket walking down the street with an “ogre” carrying roses.

For nine months I served coffee to the “least of these” — sex offenders, drug addicts, mentally ill, and troubled street kids. Then a change in volunteer policy ended my time at the coffee pot.

Eighteen months ago, Skeeter died when he fell through the roof at a construction site. He’d moved home to Texas to live with his mother; the Sunday before his death, he went to church and recommitted his life to Jesus. Skeeter came to our house once and skipped around the farm property, taking pictures of the lilac bushes, sheep, and even the family photos on our wall. I imagine him skipping around heaven doing the same.

Gary is in jail, serving time for assault. And 32-year-old Jesse still wanders the streets as he has, reportedly, since he was sixteen. We see him sometimes and sit with him on a bench. We give him money even though he never asks for it and probably uses it for cigarettes.

That summer God opened a part of my heart that had never been open before. I’m glad I said yes to Elizabeth when I wanted to say no.