I remember how cold it was when I walked into the basement of the church, a broken, hungry, lonely young man hoping for a respite from the relentless challenges I faced. I was gripped by alcoholism, renting a room in a boarding house in which others faced their own struggles, and I felt hopeless.
The smell of roasted chicken and gravy temporarily pushed back the smell of years’ worth of mold that typically dominated the senses in the old building. I sat down, put my wool hat on the table, and stared off into space. I was so embarrassed, so unhappy. How did my life come to this? But the people who volunteered at the soup kitchen I sat in that day came over to me, introduced themselves, and served me the best meal I had in a long, long time. But it wasn’t the food that made me feel cared about. It was the way they smiled as they sat down with me as I ate. It was the way they genuinely cared about my story, about my plight, about my broken, scarred past, and asked me about my dreams for the future. For one sacred evening, I felt human.
A lot has happened between that day and this morning as I write this, and I have another blog scheduled where I will share the full story of my life as a homeless man, but thankfully my life has ultimately moved in a very positive direction. I have found new hope and new life through a newfound faith. I met the most incredible woman that I could have ever dreamed of, we have two boys Jacob and Elijah, 10 and 6 years old, and I have the most amazing calling in the world: asking people to share their stories and giving broken people a voice.
Yesterday I took my boys out of school a half an hour early, as I wanted to make sure they had time to do their homework. You see, at 4:30, my family, along with three other families – dear friends of our family – were going to Shore Vineyard Church to serve the homeless of downtown Toms River.
I sat down with my boys a few minutes before we left, and opened up my Bible. “Jacob, Elijah, what we are about to do is very important.These people have not seen a lot of love.They are lonely, scared, and sad. We have an opportunity to show love to them. You see boys, your father used to be homeless just like them, and when I see a homeless person, I see myself.”
The boys stared at me, processing it all.
“When we serve these people, we are not just serving them, but we are serving someone else too. Let me read to you something: ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 28:34-40)
“You see boys, when you serve the homeless today, you are serving Jesus himself. When you look into their faces, you will see Jesus.”
My two boys, and their friends in 1st, 4th and 6th grade, served their hearts out. They served them food, prayed together with the homeless, gave them water and napkins, and poured out love from little hearts that have deep wells of pure love. It was a busy night, with many people to feed and many to talk to, but in the middle of it all, I stopped and took it all in. Tears welled up in my eyes. I have come full circle. Once there were families with children serving me. This evening, I was with my family and loved ones serving people with whom I share a similar story with… whom I have a deep connection with, whom I will always see myself in.
I will never forget where I come from. This is why I will never think I have fully arrived. I will aways remember those long, cold nights with an empty stomach, a lonely heart and an aching soul. And this is why I will not stop being grateful for where I am today. You better believe when I look into their faces, I see my past looking back at me, and I will not ever stop caring and doing what I can to bless them. For truly, but for the grace of God I am not there anymore.
(I love getting comments. If anything I wrote spoke to you, I would love to hear from you. If you would like to support this project, please buy my book, Portraits of the Jersey Shore: Everyone Has a Story, you can buy it here. This is a labor of love. If no one has told you yet, I love you, and am thankful for you. ~Gregory Andrus.)