I traveled to Philadelphia this weekend to meet someone. I just wish I had known that at the time and I would have come more prepared.
Henry grew up in New Jersey and lived there most of his life. He moved to Philadelphia about six months ago and resettled in downtown Philadelphia. He’s got a place just down the road from where I stayed at the Loews Hotel, a small first floor loft in an unbelievably historic building.
An unassuming man, Henry and I hit it off pretty quickly. We met briefly at the corner of N. Broad & Race and hustled out of the rain to grab lunch and talk awhile. The food was ok, the conversation was better, but our time together ended much too quickly.
Our meeting complete, I bid Henry a good and blessed day and walked back to my hotel. Having business of his own, Henry headed off in the opposite direction.
But that’s only half of the story.
I came to Philadelphia with my wife for a conference she was attending. I thought I would do a little work from the hotel and see a few of the Philadelphia sites, but I had very few plans for the time.
After spending most of the morning in my hotel room, my mind desired a little diversion, and my body craved a little caffeine. I left my hotel, checked out a few shops around the area, walked by the conference center where my wife was attending, and then decided I had waited long enough for my favorite drink.
My phone told me the closest 7-Eleven was a few blocks away, so I walked through the misty rain, navigating the puddles and the bustling traffic. Along the way I noticed a number of Philadelphia’s street people, likely homeless, some panhandling for change or sleeping on a sewer grate to stay warm. My mind began to race, as it often does, on how someone like me should respond to such a sight. Hundreds of people per minute were walking by with little more than a glance toward these people, some going out of their way to skirt safely by, others barely stepping around them as they went on their way.
I sent up a plea to heaven that God would watch over these people and queried Him on how I could help. I got no answers but opened my mind and heart to the possibility of doing something…anything.
As I crossed N Broad Street and navigated the median, I noticed a man standing next to the garbage can who was looking me straight in the eyes.
“Could you help me get something to eat?” he asked.
Meet Henry. You see, Henry and I had never met before. Henry is homeless.
“What do you need,” I said plainly. I wasn’t sure where this was going
Henry obviously did. “Could you buy me a cheeseburger and drink?”
A cheeseburger and a drink? My kind of guy. I knew we had something in common.
“Sure,” I said without thinking. “Come in with me and pick what you want.”
We walked in to the 7-Eleven together, and interesting pair; me, a goofy-looking, middle-aged midwesterner wearing a t-shirt and a pair of cargo shorts, and Henry an African American East Coaster at least 15 years my elder, wearing some tattered pants and a heavy hooded sweatshirt.
I told him to grab what he wanted while I grabbed a couple of sodas. It never occurred to me how absurd that sounded until I was nearly back to my hotel room.
Henry got a pre-packaged cheeseburger out of the case and a 32 ounce cherry drink from the fountain. He walked up to the counter with me and placed his items on the counter. As I began to pay he asked for a pack of matches with a “please” and a “thank you”. With our transaction complete he headed back to the microwave to warm up his lunch. Uncomfortable leaving without saying goodbye I waited outside the shop for him to come out.
When he walked out he told me he really appreciated the help. I told him it was my pleasure and asked him where he was staying. He told me he was staying at the Arch Street United Methodist Church. It was a place I knew; a beautiful historic church along my path back to the hotel. He told me he had been sleeping there for the last 6 months. I asked him where he lived prior to that and he said New Jersey, but the shelter had brought him to Philadelphia.
I told him I was glad we met and he thanked me again for my kindness. I shook his hand (for possibly the 4th time during our encounter) and for the first time noticed the large (but mostly healed) wound on his hand and how soft his hands were. I looked into his eyes one last time as we finished our handshake and tried to impress them on my mind. I wanted to remember this.
After about 20 steps I stole a glance back to see where Henry was headed. He had reassumed his post at the trash can on the corner, leaning slightly on it as he unwrapped his cheeseburger further. There was a part of me that longed to go back and stand with him a while longer to continue talking, but my own awkwardness and a concern that he may think there were now strings attached to the meal I had provided kept me from circling back. I sit here typing this still wondering if that was the right decision.
All the way back to my hotel I thought about the interaction. I questioned if I had responded correctly. I praised the fact that he asked for a meal instead of just asking for money (a moral quandary for a guy who has worked with enough addicts in poverty to know where the money would likely go). And I kept focusing on the image of his eyes. Those eyes.
God’s answer to my question was quiet and clear.
Do what you can. Then challenge yourself to do what you should.
I’d be lying to you if I said that I wouldn’t want a second chance at it. Things I would say. Things I would do.
But I have a feeling when I wake up tomorrow I’ll find myself walking by the church again, headed toward 7-Eleven. Forget the fact that I have enough drinks for 2 days in my room. (You never can have too many, right?) And the walk, and the possibility for another impromptu meeting, would do me well.
Originally published April 29, 2013.