“Will you come back for me?”
His eyes were the clearest, most inviting blue, and his skin was dark and weathered by the sun, bearing the impact of living on the streets in San Diego. But something overtook me that day that broke down any fear or inhibition, boundary or pre-conceived notion, and that something, encouraged me to live out who God created me to be. Inspiring me to come closer, to sit in the aroma of urine- stained clothing, I took hold of the hand of a man whose name I didn’t think I knew.
I was a college senior who dramatically shifted her area of studies from pre-veterinary to theology, who struggled to accept the realities of what captured my heart’s attention and yearning. Though my love of animals and biology influenced my charisms, it did not define them. The study of faith, and the exploration of understanding God more fully, always captured my imagination, stirring my deepest longings to a place of encouragement. This process to come to live into knowing the deeper layers of my giftedness has never been one dimensional, or a simple flipping of a switch to sudden awareness. It has been a brave and vulnerable exploration of the depths of my uniquely created being that often struggles to dive into that deeper next layer of my selfhood. Yet, there was something about that year — Perhaps it was rooted in the general anxiety that all soon-to-be graduates hold, that sudden coming to terms with the reality of having to step out into the world, beyond a college campus, and into a place of intentional contribution to society at-large. Yes, it could have been that; but as I continue to reflect on this exactly twenty years later (2001-2021), it wasn’t solely that simplistic notion of a young person trying to make their place in the world. It was the beginnings of my understanding how God communicates with me.
There is no easy way for me to describe my prayer life, as God is downright demanding of me, constantly urging me to be brave and to step into the unknown and trust. In those moments, God gently places care, through people or experiences, which take hold of my fear and surround me with a sense of peace. This moment in San Diego was my first fully aware moment of what this kind of prayer life is like. It is radical, and honest, challenging and demanding, frank and loving, and enduring.
A group of us were out to do service work, opting into warm meals to serve the community, exploring the streets, stopping to greet those who were hungry, and coming to know their stories. I ventured close to the trolley tracks where two men were sitting: one, a man screaming obscenities, making me very uncomfortable; and the other, gentler and more open to my presence. With each step closer to the pair of men , the vulgarities grew and the possibility of me risking my safety increased; yet I could not shake the desire to offer the gentler man my company. As I walked closer, and sat with my new friend, it was as if the world around me went quiet and still. I couldn’t see or hear anything else. It was just he and I, and I was invited into the simplest, yet most moving of conversations in my life.
As most young adults would do in an act of service, I gave him a hamburger, extending kind words of hope that this might assist with any hunger he was experiencing that day. I hoped he would be open to accepting my offering. This was the extent of what I had imagined I would be doing in that moment, yet he somehow tore down all my walls of self-inhibition within a moment, and gazed upon me like no other in my life had done before. And he thanked me. “You have the eyes of an angel,” he said. That moment gave me the opportunity to see his soul through a blue abyss of love and mercy, seeing the depths of his compassion in his tired eyes. I was captivated and our eyes locked for what seemed to be hours, but likely it was just a few minutes. We spoke a little about ourselves, but it wasn’t long before he took me to that deep place of vulnerability, and asked me, “Will you come back for me?” I was honestly like Peter, denying Jesus three times, and I had a fast curt answer for my first two responses to his question, “Well, I am offering you this today. That is what I have to give.”
“But will you come back for me?,” he urged. And again, I offered an oversimplified, “I don’t know what you mean.” But by the third time, I finally said, “Yes. I will come back for you.” And just like the cock crowing, I was suddenly taken back into the loud noises of the trolleys passing and my friends calling for me, as we had to get to the next portion of our retreat experience together. Suddenly, the moment was gone. I walked away, left with a lifetime of responding to that conversation.
The initial days after that dialogue I struggled, thinking how I could find this man housing, or align him with a local organization or group to care for him. My graduation was a few short weeks away, and I could not fulfill my initial ideas of how to fulfill my promise to him. The days went onto weeks, and months, and even years. At some point in this lifelong discernment of my response, the theological reflective promptings of my peers and studies, crystalized the prayer that God gifted me with that day. The person of Jesus Christ was demanding me to offer my fullest self.
I had the privilege of sitting with Christ on the streets, near the trolley tracks, disguised as a person we may fear; but who ended up, stopping all of time to be with me, to hold my hand, and to call for me by name…. requiring that I always come back for him.