BY KEITH FONG
H ello, sir. I know this sounds weird, but I forgot my wallet at home, and need to catch the BART train. I was wondering if you would be willing to trade these cookies for a couple of dollars.” Shamefully, I lifted my eyes from the floor.
He looked at me, and then he took the cookies. “Sure, brother!” With a smile and with exultation for what I imagined would be his dinner, the man stooped down to pick up eight quarters carefully from his ragged guitar case. A scruffy beard clung to his face. Scuffed leather shoes too thin to be warm donned his feet. Worn-out pants housed his thin legs. A thin, dirty shirt clung to his chest. An old jacket completed the wardrobe.
He turned back around and dropped the quarters out, one by one, into my hand. His hands were rough, scratched, no doubt worn from the wind and the cold. “There you go.” Slowly, I looked him in the face to express my gratitude, and saw an old man, tall but tired. His forehead, eyes, and mouth were lined with wrinkles. His teeth were yellow but not unpleasant, His smile genuine, his posture honest, his demeanor proper and civilized. But what overwhelmingly surrounded this man was an aura of lack, want, need. And unsurprisingly so: he was The Beggar, the epitome of what I imagined the homeless to be.
To explain how I came to meet this fellow, I need to go back a day, to Saturday, November 21, the Big Game, Stanford vs. California: an eleven-hour roller coaster of delight and despair. After witnessing the best football game of my life, my traveling party and I hopped on the CalTrain back to Berkeley. While I was dozing off, my roommate turned around to give me a confused look: “I’m getting a call from you.”
I returned his look of confusion. It was impossible: I had left my phone back at home. “I don’t know,” I said. So he picked up. Confused, I listened to a one-sided phone conversation, and looked expectantly when he hung up.
“Someone named Michelle says she found your phone at the game, and wants to meet up with you at the Ashby BART station tomorrow at seven. Can you make it?” Upon hearing this, I was immediately thankful to God for watching over His forgetful child!
So at 6:30 pm the next day I zoomed off on my scooter towards the BART station to ride over a stop to Ashby and pick up my phone. Halfway down the hill, I realized that in my haste I had remembered to pick up cookies to thank Michelle, but forgotten my wallet.
I struggled to find a solution, desperately grasping for something to rely on. Call a friend? Sneak on board? Find a dollar on the street? Nothing reasonable came to mind. And then, I realized that by God’s provision, I had bought two bags of cookies. “I can sell one, and give the other to Michelle!” Revelation. Problem solved.
Walking to the station, I spotted a man and made him my target. Rugged jacket, denim jeans, slicked hair, fancy phone, middle-class, expensive watch. I approached him as an equal in social class, because I was one, wasn’t I? “Excuse me sir, I’m in a predicament. I forgot my wallet at home, and I’m wondering if you’d be willing to trade me these cookies for two dollars so I can ride the BART.” There. Done deal. I wasn’t dressed like someone who needed to beg for money to live; I didn’t present myself as a street kid, just a forgetful college student.
“No, I don’t have any money.” With that, he coldly walked off. I was offended, to say the least. And then all those times I had treated the homeless asking for money or some food as second– or third-class citizens came to mind. Or the times I had walked about four feet around a beggar shaking a cup of change, as if to avoid getting a disease. Or the times I had looked in disgust because of their appearance, smell, demeanor, whatever. Bricks of what had started as indignation at the lying man who refused to give me money turned to self-criticism and reflection. Interesting. I’m the beggar now. I’m the one at the mercy of those who are finishing up a day of labor.
After my epiphany, though, I still didn’t have any money. Yet I turned around and what do I find – The Beggar. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. I will beg from The Beggar. Submit myself to a man who probably has less money to his name than what the music player in my pocket is worth. Yes, this dirty, homeless, needy, hungry, poor, abandoned man will be my provider. The middle-class man was stingy, ungenerous, when he had much to give. And this man, who has comparatively nothing, gives. Gives. And that brings me to where I began this story.
Well, it turns out I didn’t need that money to buy a ticket, because Michelle ended up driving over to the station and dropped off the phone. God save her: she was truly kind. But I had an unused ticket, and nothing to do with it. So on my way out, I dropped it back off to The Beggar. He was cooing to a baby as her mother looked on lovingly. This was an extraordinary man, with a heart bigger and a soul more generous than my own.
“Did I help you, brother?” he asked. “Oh yes, thank you very much. Here, take this: I don’t need it anymore.” He meant help getting a ticket; I meant help getting a perspective.
I reclaimed my phone. But more than that, I gained a key insight to humility. Jesus, God Himself incarnate, the only God-Man, came to earth, humbled Himself even to the point of the cross. He lived poor, tired, hungry, unknown, for the first thirty years of His life, and lived homeless, broke, without a place to rest His head, for the last three years of His life, even though He was and is God, with more riches than the universe can hold at His disposal. He forsook it all, to come to this broken, dirty, sinful, evil, corrupt world of ours. For what? why? who? For you.
And if He had come to earth now instead of when He did, would I scorn Him as a liar, a friend of sinners, a dirty and defiled blasphemous man, worthy of being beaten and nailed to a wooden cross? My instinct says, “No! I would never do that.” The smarter side of me says, “Yes, Keith. You are the worst of all sinners. You would do the same thing. You would have yelled ‘Crucify Him!’ along with everyone else.” What have I to take pride in? Nothing.
If life is a joyful pursuit of glorifying my Holy Father in heaven by being satisfied in Him and Him only, in obeying His commandments and reveling in the depths of His mercy, grace, and love, then understanding Jesus is the first step. Becoming more and more like Jesus Christ, in character, deed, word, and motive, through the power of the Holy Spirit, who lives within every child of the Father God, is only possible by first understanding His humility. Begging from The Beggar was the second most humbling (and by humbling I don’t mean ‘embarrassing’), thing I’ve ever done; knowing that Jesus traded my iniquity for His righteousness is the first – and, God willing, always will be. Amen.
So how are we to react to the homeless and needy? Use your money, time, and influence where it will be most effective. Perhaps this may mean giving the money to churches and organizations that are spreading the Gospel of Christ, providing tangible, visible help to getting these people out of destitution and poverty, and towards a redeemed, unashamed life in Christ. Or maybe take things into your own hands, and give them a good meal while telling them the Good News of Jesus. The love of God breaks down all social classes. To those whom much has been given, much is expected. Christ was homeless, and gave His life to ill-deserving sinners. Read Matthew 5:1–10, Philippians 2:5–11, and Romans 10:11–21, and pray on it. You have much to give. We all do. May you worship Jesus in humility with me.