Department: Think About It
On December 26, 2018, I arrived in St. Louis, Missouri, to participate in Urbana18, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA's triennial missions conference. Urbana is geared toward college students; it's a time of incredible worship, prayer, and conversation. It's a time where the unexpected can happen.
My unexpected moment took place over lunch when I met Pete.* Pete had lived in St. Louis all his life. He had come inside the hotel to get warm. Temperatures were in the 30s, with a brisk breeze. When he saw me ordering a soup and sandwich, he asked to sit with me. “Are you hungry?” I asked. He nodded. “I'm getting tomato soup and a turkey BLT. Do you like tomato soup?” We talked about tomato versus minestrone soup. Eventually, he agreed tomato soup was best, and I ordered for him.
Conversation with Pete wasn't easy. His words muddled together, but I caught phrases here and there. His thought process moved from subject to subject quickly, but he liked it when I smiled. He said it made him feel at ease.
Pete's eyes were red and swollen, and I could smell alcohol on his breath as he talked. The nailbed of one finger was bleeding, and he had difficulty wiping his nose after he sneezed. Pete said he had been on the streets a long time.
As we talked, hotel security approached us and asked Pete to leave. I turned toward the security person and said, “I've invited Pete to have lunch with me. He's my guest. Is it okay if he stays?” She agreed but said Pete would need to leave as soon as lunch was over. I nodded and thanked her.
During our lunch, there was a stark contrast in the way two of the hotel staff treated us. One showed courtesy and respect, while the other had a look of complete disdain. When Pete asked for a napkin, she did not move. When I asked for a napkin for Pete, she moved slowly and placed the napkin just out of Pete's reach. There was anger in her eyes—toward both of us.
I stayed with Pete until he finished eating. I felt that if I left, he would be asked to leave without finishing his meal. As Pete finished his lunch, he said he had something for me. He opened a fresh napkin and began to fold and roll the edges. I smiled. “It's a rose! Thank you, Pete.”
I'm grateful for this chance encounter with Pete and what I learned in our short time together:
- I am a white female who is extremely privileged. I have education, resources, and a strong support system. If I don't check in with my family, they call or text. Pete is black, homeless, and possesses few resources. I wondered who would miss Pete if he didn't check in.
- Every person has dignity and worth because each of us is created in the image of God. I have dignity and worth; Pete has dignity and worth.
- I am struck with the word marginalized, used to describe those who live on the periphery and are overlooked. We may ask people who are homeless to leave, but that does not remove the problem of homelessness. Although out of our vision, they are still there, cold and hungry.
- We can treat each other with varying degrees of respect or with no respect at all. It's easy to dehumanize others. I experienced this for a few minutes, but Pete lives with this reality every minute of his life.
- As a follower of Christ, I've been invited to sit at the Lord's table. I am not an outcast. I'm accepted, loved, and cherished. No one can ask me to leave. No matter what happens to me, this is a truth I can always claim.
- Every story matters. Pete's story matters to God, which means it should also matter to me.
- Sometimes the simplest of gifts—those that cost nothing—carry the greatest value. The paper flower I received, as well as all Pete taught me that day, are gifts I will carry in my heart for a long time.
Thank you, Pete, for treating me to lunch. I learned much. I will not forget you.