On December 26, I arrived in St. Louis to participate in Urbana, InterVarsity’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 has lived in St. Louis all his life. Pete is also homeless. 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 told me he wanted to join me. “Are you hungry?” I asked. He nodded. “I’m getting some 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 some for him.
Conversation with Pete wasn’t easy. His words would muddle together, but I caught phrases here and there. His thought process moved from subject to subject quickly, but I understood 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, two of the hotel’s staff interacted with us. There was a stark contrast in the way they treated us. One showed courtesy and respect while the other had a look of complete disdain and hate. When Pete asked for a napkin, she did not move. When I asked for a napkin for Pete, she moved as slowly as she could to bring one, placing it just out of Pete’s reach. There was anger in her eyes--toward both of us.
I stayed with Pete until he had finished eating. I felt that if I left, he would be asked to leave without being able to finish 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 looked and smiled. “It’s a rose!” I said. “Thank you, Pete. I really appreciate this.”
I‘m extremely grateful for this chance encounter with Pete. He taught me much 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 to see how I’m doing. Pete is black, homeless, and possesses few resources. I wondered who would miss Pete if he didn’t check in.
- I believe every person has dignity and worth because each of us is created in the image of God. While Pete represents the marginalized persons of our society, he still has dignity and worth.
- It strikes me how “we” have created a big, fancy word to describe others in society 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.
- We can treat each other with varying degrees of respect or with none at all. It’s so easy to dehumanize others. I experienced this for just 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 as His adopted daughter. I am not an outcast. I’m accepted, loved, and cherished. No one can ask me to leave. No matter what happens to me in this life, 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 are gifts I will carry in my heart for a long time.
Thank you, Pete, for treating me to lunch. I learned so much and owe you a great deal. I will not forget you.
Christy Secor, RN, DNP, CDWF, is NCF’s Professional Ministries Director. The recent Urbana conference in St. Louis was her first as an NCF staff member.