When the Chips are Down
By Al Boyce
Over the past few years, our family has had the opportunity to work with homeless men and women in our area and to see God working in their lives. One thing we learned pretty early is that we can't "fix" them. God didn't put us there to help their substance abuse, get them jobs, or find them apartments. He wants us there to pour the love of Jesus into them, to encourage them to find their own relationships with the Lord, and to continue their lives empowered by the Holy Spirit-in whatever direction they may take.
It can be a hard pill for the typical Christian missionary to swallow-the idea that our ideas of success and failure have nothing to do with God's great plans. Let me share one tiny example....
We had been working with a homeless man named Bob for some time. He was very drunk when we met him and, typically, came to every Thursday night Bible study drunk-apologizing profusely in a slurring kind of way-but drunk.
I can't count how many times we reassured him that we were not mad at him, that we forgave him, and God forgave him; how many times we told him that God had a plan for him and that wonderful things would surely come.
After a couple of months, Bob's drinking grew noticeably less and he started coming to church with us on Sunday. He became interested in getting regular work. We found a man who ran a company that cleaned up after concerts during the summer, and he was willing to take Bob on, as long as he was sober and showed up for work on time.
Bob didn't have a car, or even a bicycle, and buses didn't run from his camp to the concert venues. So he would walk-sometimes for three hours-to get to work on time. He would work-sometimes for 12 hours-and then walk home, uncomplaining.
When his boss, Steve, heard about this, he was astounded. He started finding ways to get Bob rides to work and back home.
When people at our church found out about the need, they donated a bicycle to Bob. Suddenly he could get to work in one hour instead of three.
A short time after that, our church started an Angel Tree outreach to get Christmas presents for the children of people in prison. Bob grabbed the first Angel Tree ornament and managed to get his gift in before anyone else.
Bob was still homeless, working only 10 to 15 hours per week, but he had managed to change the views of several people about homelessness. He had blessed members of a church with an opportunity to make a difference in his life.
A few weeks later, Bob went on a drinking binge and ended up in the county jail. His bond was $500. When Steve posted the bond, Bob was beside himself. He couldn't believe anyone would risk $500 on him.
When he thanked Steve, his boss said, "You're not gonna jump bond on me, are you?"
"Nope," said Bob. "Where would I go?"
With Bob as an example, Steve was interested in hiring other homeless men. Bob suggested his friend, Hank, who began working the concerts as well. As summer was drawing to a close, Steve suggested the two work for him fulltime in the fall. They would be working about three miles from our house and would need to be at work by 7 a.m. every morning. The buses didn't run early enough.
It was time for God to take a hand again.
At that time, Hurricane Katrina had devastated so many people, and our church was asking for people who might be willing to open their homes to those displaced from Louisiana and Mississippi. My wife and I agreed we might be able to host up to three people in our home by moving our children around and doubling up in bedrooms.
After a couple of weeks, it was clear no Katrina victims were coming our way. Why, then, had we cleaned out those rooms and set up a futon in our homeschool classroom?
The accommodations were perfect for Bob and Hank. But the third person?
Hank's fiancée, Becky, had long dreamed of working with the elderly. She interviewed at the rest home closest to our home and was accepted on the spot.
Our three beds were filled.
Bob-still homeless, still occasionally drinking and in trouble with the law-had helped two friends find fulltime jobs and housing, and to start saving for an apartment.
Becky was on probation following a drug conviction and was required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as a condition of probation. Hank and Bob began attending as well. Bob got his beginners chip from AA and a sponsor.
When Bob asked my wife what he could get for her birthday, she told him she wanted a 30-day chip from AA. At first, Bob agreed. Then he realized it would mean staying sober on HIS birthday the week before his month of sobriety was up.
For weeks he talked-sometimes jokingly, sometimes seriously-about how he was going to take his savings on his birthday, hole up in a hotel and get drunk. Then he'd say, "Naw, I'm just kidding." Nobody really knew what he was going to do.
His birthday came and, quietly, Bob announced he was staying at our house instead of going back to the woods or getting a hotel. He asked for some odd jobs to do to keep his mind off drinking.
The next week, he got his 30-day chip and gave it to my wife.
Now it's time to bring another homeless man into the story: Chris.
Chris had been living in a battered van in the woods for many years. He might have lived out his life there, drinking beers all day long, if he hadn't been injured falling off a ladder.
The knee injury proved much more serious than anyone thought at first. He ended up having a steel plate put in his knee, spending weeks in the hospital and months in rehabilitation. He was released back into the woods while still using a walker.
Virtually immobilized, Chris drank more beer than ever. His knee began to swell up, then his stomach and abdomen filled with fluid, and he gained weight dramatically. When he could hardly breathe anymore, he went to the hospital.
Doctors put a tube in his leg and abdomen to drain several quarts of fluid. They told him his liver was nearly shut down due to years of alcohol abuse. They warned him that if he didn't stop drinking, he might not live another year.
My wife and I gradually got to know Chris through hospital visits and phone conversations. Gradually, God led us to learn about his family in California-a family he had not seen in many years.
Chris was convinced his family would want nothing to do with him. But through a series of unlikely events, we got in touch with them and learned they wanted him to come home. Slowly, we were able to convince Chris to make a trip to California, mend his fences, and see his family.
As the time of departure neared, Chris started coming to church with us. A former auto mechanic, he agreed to come home several times to help our 16-year-old twins work on a 1966 Ford Mustang they had bought.
On an impulse, seeing how well Chris was doing after getting off alcohol, my wife gave him Bob's AA chip as a kind of good-luck charm. Chris stuck it in his pocket.
Chris took the train to California. What was supposed to be a three-day trip grew longer when a train ahead of the one he was riding, derailed near Chicago. The stress of traveling, wondering about his family, and extra delay, weighed heavily on Chris. He decided he really, really needed a beer.
Finding a bar, Chris ordered a beer, had it in his hand, and reached in his pocket to pull out the money to pay for it. There, with the change and a couple of bills, was Bob's AA chip.
Chris looked at the chip. The bartender looked at the chip. Chris said, "Maybe I don't want that beer after all."
The bartender said, "I think you're right."
Chris told us the story over the telephone, his voice choking with emotion. He went on to tell us how wonderful his visit with his family was, how loving they were.
* * *
After getting his 30-day chip, Bob finally did get drunk. He also quit his job, moved back to his camp, and spent most of the money he had saved up on a moped he hasn't quite figured out how to ride yet-and he's scared to death he'll ride it drunk and wreck it.
Some friends tell us: "You must be so disappointed about Bob."
But we look at Chris, and we look at Hank and Becky getting ready to move into their apartment next week, and we shake our heads.
We can only thank God for working through Bob and showing us His glory in so many ways.
Al Boyce is a former wire-service reporter living in Raleigh, NC, where he and his wife, Cindy, have a thriving homeless ministry. Al currently works as a systems engineer, and writes a Christian column for Crossmap.com. You can write to Al care of the Letters page of this magazine.