It’s Wednesday and today is challenge day! We get given £5, £2.40 of which is for our return train fare to Leeds, the remainder is for our day in Leeds. The aim is to learn what it’s like to be very poor/homeless and to have to spend a day in the big city. Its now 1030am, only an hour and half in. The weather is nice, chilly enough for morning time but the sun pops out occasionally and its dry so one should not complain, weatherwise, it’s a good day to be on the streets. With my free metro paper from the train station and internally suppressing the need for coffee I ascertain my midday meeting point and I’m off.
Having wandered aimlessly for a bit I select one of many benches and plop down with my metro. Your typical free newspaper, some politics, some finances, some murders, some gang problems, some celeb gossip (and a ridiculously difficult Suduko puzzle which didn’t take me too long to give up on)– the normal stuff. Then I’m interrupted.
I see a man making a B line for me. Not realllly the kind of man you want to see making a B line for you. My middle class, healthy, clean 21 year old self was about to be challenged. He gets closer and continues his approach. Making eye contact I break from the norm of quickly/awkwardly looking away and reading the paper to just simply returning a warm glance trying to be open and approachable. He continues the approach, alarmingly with a bit more gusto :s all flipping 6ft 2inches of him with his red unshavened face, army jacket and general rough/ganster man. For a skinny feeble boy like me, this is quite an intimidating scene! Having run through some self-defense moves (unrealistic matrix moves naturally) in my head and ascertained my ‘if necessary’ escape route I maintain my aimed at open pretense. With a pungent smell of stale alcohol combined with urine and sweet smelling body odour the man makes his way right into my personal space and bluntly asks for some money. It’s at this point I suddenly realize I only have £2.60 to last me a day (me who eats like a horse) and I’m sitting on a bench with a bag round me and he’s towering over me, the escape plan is not going to work AND I hardly have any money to give this man. This is it. The boy who jokes about Belfast and stabbings, is ironically, going to get stabbed himself! So I politely apologise, turn on the good old Irish wit and explain that I don’t actually have much on me, and the reasons why. He lets out a disappointed (but unexpected on my part) smile and begins to make a move. However, I’m challenged. Something pulls me for more. I do have £2.60 so I ask him to have a seat and have a chat with me, honestly my aim being to decipher whether this man is going to use this money for booze or for food, I wouldn’t mind sharing a sandwich, well I would mind, but it’s a sacrifice I’d be willing to make. I decided however to give him 60p. Embarrassed about how little I had given the man now seated next to me, I went on to explain where I was from, what I was about and how via 24-7 prayer I had ended up in Leeds spending the day in town with only £2.60. The atmosphere’s changed though. It’s not so coldly intimidating anymore, warmer, more open, feels like 2 friends sitting on a bench having a chat as opposed to the little rich kid scared of getting stabbed scenario. I offer him my paper, he declines and keen to help him out in some other way I notice has hands. Yellow, blotchy, cold, dirty, dry, calloused, hands that have known some difficulty over the recent months. We shake hands and exchange names, noticing how cold his hands are I offer my gloves, again he politely declines. It would appear, he’s not interested in getting anymore, but was now here for the chat.
And so we chat.
For the sake of this blog we shall refer to this guy as Dan. Dan know’s all about Northern Ireland, its troubles, political struggles and current difficulties, a knowledgeable and interesting man to talk to. I don’t like talking about me to much, namely transit is taxing to explain and difficult so I turned it onto him, turns out he has been homeless for six months, he once had a house, car, job, mortgage, a wife and 2 kids. He starts to cry. There’s a painful silence. So I ask him what he does all day to try and assuage the awkwardness. He walks the streets looking for food and money and when he’s got some he gets cheap kebab meat and he honestly admits, a bottle of white lightning. He keeps talking, appearing to enjoy it, painful as it may be. He recounts how his drink problem lead to him leaving his home as he was being bad to his wife and children, I’m not sure if Dan was chucked out of house, or voluntarily left, but either way, you can see the pain in his tear-filled eyes.
Conversation continues and he talks a bit about his daughter who is 10, he obviously loves his children and his wife which lead me to question how he can just ‘accept’ this street life, I don’t mean that judgmentally, life has obviously dealt this man a bad hand but you wonder is he trying to sort it out or just accepting this is it, as some kind of self-punishment for the maltreatment of his family?
It’s getting a bit too difficult, he’s beginning to realize he has a tear stricken face and is divulging a lot of information to a stranger so he begins to make a move. Not wanting to push it too far but wanting to shed a little bit more ‘God-Light’ on the situation I tell him I’ll pray for him. Getting up, he’s stopped in his tracks, looks up at me, thinks for a minute and then asks can we pray together. I was like HAHAHA love it :) praise God. So he sits back down, grabs my hand, puts his head down and to my surprise and dismay he starts praying. It’s a strange scene to be sure, an obvious homeless guy holding the hand of a 21 year old who are both praying together in the middle of the busy high street. I had a personal triumph here however, evidence that God is actually doing something in my life. For the first time, in life, I really didn’t care what I looked like, at all, I was sitting in a public place, holding hands with a homeless guy, praying, it was just beautiful. He prayed for food, for money, for his family and then for me, simple, short and beautiful, a prayer not tainted with the stain of ostentatious religion but dripping with the painful realities and truth of life. I followed with praying for a couple of things, namely blessing I think, nothing exciting if memory serves well but concluded in the name of Jesus. We both smile. You can tell he’s thankful. We shared a little moment of heaven on the street as two equals. We close up our conversations and putting his hand on my knee he smiles once more, tears back again and says thanks. Hospitality, 60p and a pray.
To me it was beautiful, I’m reminded I’m alive.