“Excuse me, sir,” I heard the man call after me as my wife and I left my local grocery store.
I turned to my left to see who called out to me, and was greeted by a short, stocky man wearing a large backpack stretched across his broad shoulders. His light brown beard was thick and unkempt, and his long, oily hair was tucked neatly underneath a baseball cap. Glasses perched gently on his nose. His name was Jay.
“How are you tonight?” I replied once I realized he was indeed talking to me.
He explained that he was trying to get a hotel room for the night before the cold weather blew in. He needed cash.
With debit and credit cards these days, I find myself short on cash often. I explained as much, and Jay nodded in understanding.
I asked him if he’d heard of Denver Rescue Mission. He said he had, but it’s a shelter for men only. He needed a place to stay with his young daughter. The shelter wasn’t a good solution for them both. He expressed concern about exposing his daughter to the dangers of substance abuse so prevalent on the streets. This time it was my turn to nod.
“You want to see something amazing,” he asked as we were about to part ways.
As I hesitated to reply, he explained that he had found a very early copy of The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe. My wife used to work at a library, so she was immediately intrigued.
We moved away from the middle of the parking lot to a location with better light, and the man began to unpack his treasure.
“You’re going to laugh when you see how I have this thing protected,” he said smiling.
He pulled out a small bundle wrapped in two Chick-fil-A French fry containers. Inside the small bundle, the book was wrapped in a small plastic bag and the plastic wrapper from a package of socks or underwear. He was right. I burst out laughing when he explained it was the best thing he had to keep the book dry and clean. But I was impressed by his ingenuity.
He gently unfolded the plastic and revealed the tattered but well preserved book. It was bound in sheep skin and still had its original potato skin pages just inside the cover.
As he gently flipped through the pages, it was obvious that this was actually something special. He explained how he was hoping to find someone to purchase the book.
We sat there for several minutes admiring the old book. Jay explained that he used to be an English teacher.
At one point, he was describing his experience being homeless and how a woman had spit on him. The shame of it sat heavy on his shoulders.
“I’m just a worthless piece of garbage,” he said.
I looked him in the eye and told him he was wrong. Surprised by my sudden stern attitude, he tilted his head slightly as if asking a question.
“You are not worthless,” I said gently.
His shoulders relaxed and an understanding smile spread across his face.
“Thank you,” he said sincerely. “I know. It’s just so easy to start thinking those kinds of things about yourself.”
Before we parted ways, we gave him a watertight plastic bag to help protect his book. It wasn’t enough really, but the time we took to chat with him was encouraging.
As he walked away I couldn’t help laughing again. A valuable piece of history tucked neatly away inside underwear packaging and French fry boxes. You can’t find a better metaphor than that.
On the outside, our homeless friends and neighbors, like Jay, look like trash. They look worthless. And some of them have started to believe that lie about themselves.
But the truth is, just like that book Jay found, they are hidden treasures. They are valuable, not because of the packaging they come in, but because of “the content of their character” as Martin Luther King Jr once said.
Jay is a father trying to keep his little daughter’s world from falling apart. As far as she knows, her and daddy are just staying in hotels a lot right now. But that can’t last forever.
That’s why we’re here. Although Jay and his daughter can’t stay at the Lawrence Street Shelter, they know they can get a warm meal if they need it. And Jay is on the waiting list for our STAR transitional program, where he and his daughter can get back on their feet again. I look forward to seeing them across the street at The Crossing someday soon.
But in the meantime, I pray each night for this man with a treasure hidden in his backpack. I pray that they stay warm and dry each night. And I pray that God would watch over them. They are His children, just like the rest of us—a treasure hidden under filthy rags.