Exchanging Smiles and other encounters with people who are homeless

As I was walking around downtown Chicago the past few days, I noticed several people who were homeless. Some were actively begging for money, while others were just hanging out.

I was kind of nervous about walking around by myself but after making the route a few times I felt better about it, to where Friday morning I was more focused on my nerves about singing in front of people than the actual walk itself. I usually call my mom every morning but this particular morning she didn’t answer. So I was free to enjoy the walk and encounters with various people along the way.

Several yards away, I noticed a man who appeared to be homeless. He was Black, probably in his 50s, rugged, and shaking a cup of change. I smiled at him from a distance and said, “Good morning.” He got a big goofy grin on his face and was so happy to talk with me as I walked by. I wished him a good day and as I walked past, he said, “Thanks for the smile.”

I didn’t give him money. I gave him a smile. I acknowledged his presence as if he were any other person of value and worth. And yet, as I walked away, I felt more blessed and happy from our encounter. It truly made my day to be able to connect with a stranger in this way. I didn’t even connect with people at the conference I was at as deeply as I did this man begging for change.

Recently I started volunteering at a transitional homeless shelter in Evanston. I walk in each time feeling a little anxious about what might happen and who might show up and how I should respond. Yet, I leave each time feeling so transformed by my experiences with various people and their deep gratitude for the simplest things in life, like socks. Socks.

One day it was really cold and I was carrying a few bags of clothing donations. A really nice man was walking towards the shelter and quickly noticed my heavy load. He was so gracious to help me carry in the clothes. I most likely would have fallen on the ice or busted the bags somehow. His generosity meant so much to me and saved me a lot of trouble. I later got to meet with him when he came in the clothing closet and was truly blessed by his friendliness, gratitude, and generosity.

We as a society are so quick to dismiss people who are homeless. We blame them, we ostracize them, we devalue them.

I have never lived so close to people who are homeless in my life. And it has filled me with conviction, to be so near to my neighbors in need, that we must treat them as beloved children of God and help them know that they are loved.

I wonder, what would it look like if we shared a smile more often; if we took a moment to acknowledge their presence, to listen to and value their experiences; if we spent some time to care for them and to honor them as fellow children of God. They are, after all, our neighbors.

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