– by Richard Ryan
A cold front had brought winter’s chill back to Indiana. I sat with two friends in the picture window of a quaint restaurant just off the corner of the town square. As we talked, my attention was drawn outside. There, walking into town, was a man who appeared to be carrying all his worldly goods on his back. He was carrying a well-worn sign that read, “I will work for food.” My heart sank. I brought him to the attention of my friends and noticed that others around us had stopped eating to focus on him. We continued with our meal, but his image lingered in my mind. We finished our meal and went our separate ways. I glanced towards the town square, looking somewhat half-heartedly for the strange visitor. I was fearful, knowing that seeing him again would call some response. I drove through town and saw nothing of him. Deep within me, the Spirit of God kept speaking to me: “Don’t go back to the office until you’ve at least driven once more around the square.” And so, with some hesitancy, I headed back into town. As I turned the square’s third corner, I saw him. He was standing on the steps of the church, going through his sack. I stopped and looked, feeling both compelled to speak to him, yet wanting to drive on. The empty parking space on the corner seemed to be a sign from God: an invitation to park. I pulled in, got out, and approached the town’s newest visitor.
A remarkable story
“Looking for the pastor?” I asked. “Not really,” he replied, “just resting.” “Have you eaten today?” “I ate something early this morning.” “Would you like to have lunch with me?” “Do you have some work I could do for you?” “No work,” I replied. “I would like to take you to lunch.” “Sure,” he replied with a smile. “How long have you been walking?” “Fourteen years.” I knew I had met someone unusual. His face was weathered slightly beyond his 38 years. His eyes were dark yet clear, and he spoke with an eloquence and articulation that was startling. He removed his jacket to reveal a bright red T-shirt that said, “Jesus is The Never Ending Story.” Then Daniel’s story began to unfold.
Judged and scorned
He had seen rough times early in life. He’d made some wrong choices and reaped the consequences. Fourteen years earlier, while backpacking across the country, he had stopped on a beach. He tried to hire on with some men who were putting up a large tent and some equipment. A concert, he thought. He was hired, but the tent would not house a concert – but revival services. In those services he saw life more clearly. He gave his life over to God. “Nothing’s been the same since,” he said, “I felt the Lord telling me to keep walking, and so I did, some 14 years now.” “Ever think of stopping?” I asked. “Oh, once in a while, when it seems to get the best of me. But God has given me this calling. I give out Bibles. That’s what’s in my sack. I work to buy food and Bibles, and I give them out when His Spirit leads.” I sat amazed. My homeless friend was not homeless. He was on a mission and lived this way by choice. The question burned inside for a moment and then I asked: “What’s it like to walk into a town carrying all your things on your back and to show your sign?” “It was humiliating at first. People would stare and make comments. Once someone tossed a piece of half-eaten bread and made a gesture that certainly didn’t make me feel welcome. But then it became humbling to realise that God was using me to touch lives and change people’s concepts of other folks like me.”
Learn from the man
My concept was changing too. Just outside the door, he paused. He turned to me and said, “Come Ye blessed of my Father and inherit the kingdom I’ve prepared for you. For when I was hungry you gave me food, when I was thirsty you gave me drink, a stranger and you took me in.” I felt as if we were on holy ground. “Where you headed from here?” “Well, I found this little map on the back of this amusement park coupon.” “Are you hoping to hire on there for a while?” “No, I just figure I should go there. I figure someone under that star right there needs a Bible, so that’s where I’m going next.” He smiled, and the warmth of his spirit radiated the sincerity of his mission. I drove him back to the town square, and as we drove, it started raining. We parked and unloaded his things. “Would you sign my autograph book?” he asked. “I like to keep messages from folks I meet.” I wrote in his little book that his commitment to his calling had touched my life. I encouraged him to stay strong. And I left him with a Scripture from Jeremiah, “I know the plans I have for you,” declared the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you a future and a hope.”
A reminder to pray
“Thanks, man,” he said. “I know we just met and we’re really just strangers, but I love you.” “I know,” I said, “I love you, too.” “The Lord is good.” “Yes, He is. How long has it been since someone hugged you?” I asked. “A long time,” he replied. And so on the busy street corner in the drizzling rain, my new friend and I embraced, and I felt deep inside that I had been changed. He put his things on his back, smiled his winning smile, and said, “See you in the New Jerusalem.” “I’ll be there!” was my reply. He began his journey again. When you see something that makes you think of me, will you pray for me?” “You bet,” I shouted back, “God bless.” Late that evening as I left my office, the wind blew strong. The cold front had settled hard upon the town. I bundled up and hurried to my car. As I sat back and reached for the emergency brake, I saw them, a pair of well-worn brown work gloves neatly laid over the length of the handle. I picked them up and thought of my friend and wondered if his hands would stay warm that night without them. Today his gloves lie on my desk in my office. They help me to see the world and its people in a new way, and they help me remember those two hours with my unique friend and to pray for his ministry.
RICHARD RYAN was the assistant pastor of the Old Capitol United Methodist Church in Corydon, Indiana.
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