Two nights. Two cities. Two weeks apart. Two experiences that taught me the value of humanity.
The first night was in early August. Toowoomba is a regional city on a mountain range, so it’s windy and cold in the winter, when temperatures can drop below zero. Each year the Basement Soup Kitchen runs an event where people sleep on the street for a night. It’s done to educate those doing the “sleep out” about the reality of homelessness, but also to raise money to help keep their projects going.
With a backpack swag supplied by the organisers and a bag of things to keep me going for the night, I joined a group of 150 others sleeping on the street that night. Throughout the night we moved around the town at numerous times. While we thought a carpark would make a good spot to get some sleep, the police arrived to move us on. We finally stopped for the night at the train station; it was about 1 am when we laid our heads down, trying to sleep. Bright city lights, cars driving past and noisy passers-by do not make for a comfortable night’s sleep.
It was cold, but it wasn’t because of the chilly wind—it was the concrete. It seemed to draw out the heat from my body. Though I was thankful for my swag, I was still very exposed to the cold night. I tossed and turned on that merciless concrete, trying to spread out the pain evenly on both sides of my body.
I had to leave by 6 am to get to work (and I was very thankful to wake up early this day). It was the most unproductive, useless work day of my life—I was a mess from no sleep and I felt emotionally low. Everyone I spoke to noticed how unhappy I was. With just one night on the street I realised how negatively it had affected me.
My one night of sleeping rough made me realise that most people who live on the street don’t stay there because they want to. It’s a life that drags a person down, degrading them and depressing them into the darkest depths. I could escape it, knowing it was a one-off experience with a home waiting for me. Many cannot escape homelessness. They may suffer from mental illness and feel they have no ability to leave because they see no better option. It is a dark place and it is made darker by the feeling of isolation.
The second night happened a few weeks later on the Gold Coast where I was staying for a work convention. After the evening’s session had finished I went for a walk down the main street. That’s when I saw him, a homeless man sitting in the gap between two stores. He had a garbage bag of items and a small blanket laid out on the pavement as a bed. I was wearing a jacket and long pants, but still cold; he was dressed in only a T-shirt and shorts. Something inside me said, “Give this guy your jacket; you’ve got at least three more in your apartment.”
And I did nothing. I’m still ashamed to think about it and even more ashamed to write it down. I did nothing. I rationalised it away in my mind in the moment with something like: He wouldn’t really want my jacket. Really, I know now I’d fallen prey to my selfish tendencies; my cold, concrete heart. I’d turned away from a person in need when I had the ability to do something in that moment. How does this happen? How do we become so insensitive to the needs of those aching around us? While they suffer, how are we able to tell ourselves, It’s not my problem?
This is why I truly admire Jesus. Here is a person who grew up and lived in the most dangerous part of the planet: the Middle East. He grew up in the impoverished backwater town of Nazareth. He even at one time said that birds and foxes have more established homes than He did. He understood the lowest point of human suffering. Yet He never said of others in pain, “Not my problem.” He spoke often about giving to those in need. He even said that God prioritised and loved the poor despite many saying in His day that the poor were rejected by God—has that attitude really changed since then?
Christmas often becomes about getting more stuff and giving more stuff to people who have too much stuff already. Hopefully the irony isn’t lost on you. Because Jesus gave up everything, not to help those who had everything, but to lift up those who were broken, oppressed and needy. Why should Christmas, a day to celebrate the entrance of this radical and beautiful Person into our dark world, be about anything different?
In his hit classic Man in the Mirror, Michael Jackson sings of seeing kids in the street with not enough to eat, some all alone without a home. But he just turns the collar up on his favourite winter coat. It’s so easy to become cynical and cold to the needs of those around us, pretending not to see them. People with scarred and broken hearts, nowhere to go and no place to be, these are the people who need the gift of love and support all year around.
So that’s why he sings, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways, and no message could have been any clearer, if you wanna make the world a better place take a look at yourself and make a change.” Maybe the best gift I could give to the world is to take a hard look in the mirror, ask God to crack my cold concrete heart and then reach out to those hurting around me.
Jacob Ugljesa is a pastor at the Glenvale Adventist Church in Toowoomba, Queensland.