Unconventional Friendship: The story of Harry
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By day, he lives around the perimeter of a local Dallas shopping center. By night, he sleeps in a grove of nearby trees. His source of transportation is his two feet. His meals are handouts from strangers. His last shower was years ago. His life is defined by days of walking, wandering, and sitting around the limited areas he calls home.
Sweltering hot summers. Bitter cold winters. Heavy rains. In all of them, Harry walks, wanders, and sits. He sits at the bus stop. He sits on a grassy space by a convenience store. He sits on a store ledge. And then, he walks again.
Harry never begs or solicits. He doesn’t hint or suggest. He doesn’t stand in an intersection with a sign asking for money. He doesn’t drink or smoke. He doesn’t complain.
To many, he is a local icon.
To others, he is a local nuisance.
To me, he is a broken friend.
I started peripherally taking care of Harry over three years ago. I would give him an occasional bottle of cold water. Or a burger. Sometimes ice cream. Sometimes a clean shirt. Sometimes a wet washcloth.
It was a “transactional” ministry, and it served his needs, but something was missing. A few years ago, HPUMC’s Senior Minister, Rev. Paul Rasmussen infused the theme of intentionality into one of his sermons. He spoke of how people are intentional with some life matters, like which restaurant to choose for dinner, the guest-seating placement at a wedding party, or which clothes to wear for a trip to the store. But for other life matters, those that have far more leverage to uplift the marginalized, the hurt, and the helpless, they may not be as intentional.
Many kind and generous people give Harry food, clothing, and care items, for which I’m extremely grateful. Yet, inspired by God’s word through Paul’s sermons, I wanted to give him more.
In May of 2016, I changed my approach with Harry; I became intentional. Instead of providing a transactional ministry, I wanted to provide a “transformative” one. I wanted to provide Harry with fellowship and friendship, not just care items.
As I drove by Harry’s usual haunt, I saw him. I bought a convenience store lunch for both of us and sat down to talk to him. To be intentional. To be transformative, not just transactional. And so it was. Me. Harry. A bad hot dog. A cold Coke. And a lot of intentionality.
So began our journey. Like many homeless people, Harry clearly has a strong degree of untreated mental illness. With years of homelessness and mental illness combined, he is intermittently labile in thought, conversation, and mood. He is extremely slow to trust. Sometimes he is coherent, sensible, smart, and even extremely wise. Other times he isn’t. Sometimes he speaks clearly. Sometimes he rambles. Sometimes he has flashes of brilliance. Other times, he has flashes of his broken state.
Sometimes I see the man he was. More often, I see the man he is.
Sometimes, he’s calm. Occasionally, he is angry. Sometimes I like him. Other times, I don’t. But, through slow and intentional fellowship, he has come to trust me.
Because I have earned his trust, I’ve learned Harry’s life story. I know extremely intimate details about him from his childhood through recent years. He has had successes and failures. He’s done things right, and he’s done things very wrong. Harry has become one of the purest relationships in my life. He doesn’t want anything from me. He has no secondary motives. He knows my name, and he affectionately calls me “Iowa” as a tribute to the beloved state I grew up in.
Our relationship has become transformative instead of just transactional. This is the result of intentionality.
The highlight of my relationship with Harry was the first time he allowed me to wash his feet. There on the grassy patch in front of the convenience store, he took off his boots to expose feet that were battered and broken, cut and bloody. It was a moment of trust that took many months to achieve. It even led to our first discussions about Jesus. To this day, he allows me to pull off his socks, and wash his feet. It is powerful and humbling.
It is transformative for both of us.
Nearly two years of intentionality later, Harry and I have progressed to a relationship where we are non-traditional friends. We have laughed together. We have argued. We joke. We are patient and impatient with one another. I have stripped away “feeling sorry” for Harry and have moved towards a more genuine relationship that allows me to like and dislike him. To minister to him not based on pity, but on the commandment of “Do Unto Others.”
We have become a starkly contrasting duo as we sit at the bus stop or on the grassy patch and fellowship together. A clean, well-maintained middle-aged woman in a dress. A disheveled homeless man in dirty clothes. A duo so contrasting that people often stop and stare. Some people even ask if I need help. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with a homeless man seems to surprise people. And yet, I get more from Harry than what I give.
On a few occasions, I’ve seen Harry pulling food from garbage cans. In those instances, I’ve stopped him and convinced him to wait while I purchase a meal from a nearby fast food restaurant. As much as garbage surfing breaks my heart, I’ve learned not to feel sorry for Harry, because he doesn’t feel sorry for himself.
The most transformative outcome I’ve witnessed from our friendship is the way it’s moved other people to compassionate action. I receive donations for him from childhood friends in Iowa, adult friends in Canada, and local friends in Dallas. I don’t accept money, as I want my personal ministry to remain pure and free of suspicion. Everything I receive is a testimony to how blessing someone can grow more blessings.
Harry has adamantly refused my attempts to organize formalized help for him. His mental illness is too prevalent. His decision-making ability is not intact. His distrust is too strong. He is stubborn, smart, and not very smart all rolled into one complicated man. I’ve accepted his decision, though it’s not the decision I agree with. And so, I will continue to bring him clean socks, warm washcloths, and fresh t-shirts.
I will continue to wash his feet.
More importantly, I will continue to fellowship with him.
I don’t share this journey from a self-congratulatory lens. I share this because I believe in the power of one person, one moment, one act of kindness. I believe each of us can leverage our blessings to bless others.
We can leverage a single moment and a single act of giving to model Christ.