Meet Tom

Yes, I know.  I post this story almost every year.  If you’ve read it, you can read it again or close this post.  I like to go back a read it as a reminder of my motivation to start Project Warm Us.

The stark cold stung my face as I left my warm house.  The gloomy Texas day should have been for sleeping in and sitting by the fireplace, not taking a road trip.  People in Texas don’t have clothing for temperatures hovering around freezing.  Winter clothing in this climate is just not necessary, as it could sit for years without use.  I was going to my cousin’s funeral.  The two-hour car ride should have been uneventful and relatively boring.  No, that wasn’t the case.  The day was going to be filled with unusual opportunities I could have never predicted.  This one-day trip would change my life forever.

My cousin Jim and I got along well.  He and I had some things in common: we speak our minds and enjoy a good debate.  We’ve both been known to “poke the bear,” if that could spark an interesting conversation with anyone that crossed our path.  Jim was opinionated, and that was a quality I very much appreciated.  Why?  Because people who are opinionated are passionate about their beliefs.  Not only do they like  sharing it with others, but they like to explain their reasoning and give people something to think about.  Beyond that, debaters love to hear opposing views and dispute them.  Jim did this, and did it well.

Jim died an untimely death in his late 40‘s of medical complications.  Our last conversation was about God.  He started the discussion with why bad things happen to good people, and if anyone had a reason to have this conversation, it was him.  He was crippled in his early 30′s due to rheumatoid arthritis, followed by a stroke which left him partially paralyzed.  He began stating his views when I blurted out, “It’s because God gave us the gift of free will.”  Somewhat irritated, he said, “That’s the point I’m trying to make here!  Don’t steal my thunder!”  We had the same view, but nonetheless, he was prepared for a debate with me anyway.  I miss him.

I’m going to say this publicly, I was not the best cousin.  I didn’t call him very often.  I had a call from him a couple of weeks prior to his death, a call I never got the chance to return.  I was too engrossed in all of my busyness to pause and talk with him.

Pressed for time, I debated on whether or not to stop and grab a bite to eat.  I was starving, or at least through my 1st world problem lens, that how I would define it.  Clearly I’m not starving.  I get three square meals a day and unlimited snacks if I choose.  I stopped at a fast food drive-thru to get something quick I could take on the road.  As I was driving back to the highway, I saw a man with a sign asking for help.  My first thought was to call him homeless, but I really have no way of knowing if that was the case, so I’m going to go with ‘impoverished’.  He was sitting so close to the highway, it would have been difficult for anyone to pull over and spontaneously help him.  I drove onto the highway, wishing I had stopped.

I thought back to when I lived in downtown Chicago, passing homeless and impoverished people all the time.  It was easy to help, because I saw so many of them on a daily basis.  Now I live in the untroubled suburbs, a place where being impoverished is frowned upon and being homeless is not allowed.  Out of sight, out of mind, right?  I drove on, not able to think of anything besides this man on the side of the road.  I wanted to not only buy him lunch and give him the few dollars I had, but I had a strong desire to talk with him.  What’s his story?  Why is he on the side of the road?  What series of life events brought him to this place?  Ten miles down the highway, I turned the car around and headed back to find out.

Tom HomelessI returned to the drive-thru, bought a meal and drove across the street where he was still sitting.  As I got out of the car, he started to approach me.  I handed him the lunch and the few dollars cash I had in my wallet.  Yes, I know what they say.  Don’t give cash.  It was literally a couple of dollars.  Who carries more cash than that anyway, unless you’re a drug dealer or on Dave Ramsey’s envelope plan?  Don’t judge me, I gave him the few dollars.  I wasn’t prepared for this moment, as I’ve never stopped on the side of the road to chat with anyone.

I was so anxious to talk with him.  I’ve never had a conversation with any person asking for help beyond the typical social greetings.  For some reason, I was eager to know more about him.  I introduced myself and shook his hand.  I got a warm greeting back from Tom.  He was very appreciative to receive the food, although he did decline the Coke I bought for him.  He said he can’t have sugar.

Before I go any further here, I need to tell you why I’m writing about this experience.  I’m not writing this to get praise for being a good person or for doing some random act of kindness for a stranger.  I’m writing this to tell of how God can take a selfish person and change their heart.  Yes, me, a very selfish person.  I was convicted to go back and chat with this man, not because I needed to do a good deed, but because I wanted to genuinely do something that might make his day a little better.  More than that, I wanted to get to know him.  I wanted to know what I, a typical middle-class suburb girl, has in common with a drifter and potentially homeless man, asking for help.

Tom is an amazingly friendly man, a man who has fallen on some hard times.  We talked about many things.  Travel, weather, abandoned houses, photography, art, the Bible, God and much more.  Tom has seen the Mona Lisa in person!  It was amazing to hear how he takes in a piece of art and describes it in such astounding detail, along with his thoughts about the experience.  At this point, the fantasy part of my brain kicked in and I wanted to take him to the closest art gallery I could find and spend the day there.  Reality check!  I’m in Tyler, Texas.  Art galleries?  Probably not.  And yes, I know, the more obvious thing.  Don’t talk to strangers and don’t pick up hitchhikers.  Tom was not strange, not hitchhiking and I said “fantasy.”  No worries, I didn’t take him anywhere.

Tom is a leather artist and has also dabbled in woodworking.  Tom has an NIV study Bible.  He’s had it for about 5 years and he loves to take notes, write stories and draw pictures in it, just like I do.  I, of course, made sure he was stocked with art supplies for the necessary creative scrawls.

About this time, a light blue VW Bug pulled up where we were sitting.  The lady driving it rolled down the passenger window to give Tom some blankets she had just purchased.  She had two small children in the back.  Is it dangerous to stop and help people on the side of the road?  I suppose it could be, but I’d rather not live my life with that kind of thinking.  My kids have not been exposed to the homeless.  They have however, been to an orphanage in Mexico and seen poverty, but none close to where we live.  This lady is teaching her kids some great things about life and helping people.

As I spoke with Tom, I felt a beautiful warmth.  I typically don’t look into people’s eyes too closely because they look back.  I avoid it.  But his eyes were intriguing.  His soul was glowing and you could see it through his eyes.  I don’t know if he actually ever saw the Mona Lisa, but that doesn’t matter.  What matters is helping others with a joyful heart.

We talked for a while longer before I realized I was going to be late if I didn’t get back on the road.  We said goodbye, shook hands again and I climbed into my car.  I shut the door and it was as though I had stepped into a another world.  Suddenly, I realized how cold I was.  The temperature outside was 38 degrees and Tom was dressed for it.  I was not.  What just happened here?

My encounter with Tom really got me thinking about my life and the way I live it.  I really need to get out of the mecca of wealth and prosperity more often.  I need to get out of my comfort zone.  I need to go help homeless and impoverished people.  There are plenty of people in need, but they’ll never be sitting in my front yard.  I don’t want to be selfish.  I’m going to go find them and do what I can to help.  I am blessed in so many ways.  Talking to Tom was a blessing.  His sign said he was broke and hungry.  Aren’t we all?

Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus replied, ”`You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: `Love your neighbor as yourself.  The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”