I have this wonderful friend named Bill. He is an awesome listener and has this infectious laugh that forces a smile across your face no matter how hard you try to frown. He tells great stories and loves his on again off again girlfriend with all his heart. Bill doesn’t make fun of my bad hair day or ridicule the pimple springing out on my nose. He lives in the present and is always genuinely interested in how I became who I am. We bond over coffee and 80’s rock music, especially this wicked band named Rush.
It was a bone-chilling October night; I was leaving a friend’s wedding feeling awkward in my singleness. One college acquaintance asked during the reception, “so do you even try to date?” Sigh. If you’ve ever existed as a mid twenty, unmarried person, you know what I’m talking about. Wherever you go, people will incessantly ask about your relationship status, attempt to set you up with their ugly step sisters and give you the sad head tilt, which we all know is a metaphor for, “Oh poor you.” They see being single as less than, as a season of life to be pitied.
Part way through the wedding dance I decided to take off. Only a few steps outside the door I noticed a middle-aged guy with a red-beard sitting, huddled on a cold metal city bench smoking the end of a bent cigarette.
As I looked at him, he looked back and I felt something telling me to say hello. It was weird. I’m not that person who can just strike up a conversation with strangers. Just say hi. Finally, I muttered a quick hello and kept walking. The man, clearly taken a back that I acknowledged him replied, “oh hey, hey, how are you?”
That one simple word, “hello” was how I met Bill. I migrated to the bench next to him and asked him about his day. He was bundled up for the below freezing temperatures in a faded overstuffed black winter coat, a clean and patriotic USA hat, and had crutches laying across his lap. Every few minutes a cocktail dress and heels would walk by and stare at us but after a while I barely even noticed.
Bill has never owned a car or a home. He walks 20-30 miles a day in a city of 300,000 people. After we had been chatting for a bit he said, “It had been days since anyone has talked to me or said hello.” At the ripe age of 47, Bill has been suffering from homelessness since 16 and has been in and out of jail and since 19. He suffers from depression and ADHD. He’s made a lot of mistakes, but who hasn’t.
I walked with him a few blocks and asked if I could drive him anywhere. I offered to come pick him up and he shyly inquired if I was scared to be seen with him in the ramp. It never crossed my mind. As he got in my car he asked if I was nervous, and I told him absolutely not. We drove for miles towards the hipster-oriented part of the city known as Uptown to one of his hideouts. I asked if he was hungry or if I could get him a hot meal. He initially said he didn’t want to take advantage, but after I insisted he admitted he really wanted some hot coffee.
After a slight debate about best cup of Joe, he told me to take a quick left, “I want to show you something,” he said. We pulled up in front of a mansion of a city house, with large oak steps, granite stone covering the side and landscaping like you wouldn’t believe. “This is where I grew up,” he said. “I used to play on those steps and wait for my dad to come home from the car dealership. It seems like yesterday”
As we entered McDonald’s, the people around us were clearly nervous. Bill didn’t smell, and when I first looked at him, I wasn’t even positive he was homeless. But his beard was a little scraggly, and the years of struggle showed in his face. I ordered him a large coffee and a hamburger and got myself some orange soda. I got to hear a lot about Bill’s life that first day. Bill told me about his past, about his many times in and out of prison and work houses. In hour 2 of our hang out, Bill leaned in and whispered, “I’ve gone 12 days without alcohol, the longest I can remember.” I got to tell him I was so proud of him. I got to encourage him to stay clean.
Our friendship is a little reckless by the standards of this world. Yet, hidden beneath his rough exterior was a man who was starving for a universal need: connection. We all need someone to talk to, someone to care about us, someone to laugh with and hear those treasured words, “I’m so proud of you.” Living out the life Jesus called for us isn’t about putting yourself in dangerous situations… hanging out with Bill never sparks fear in my heart. Yet, it’s about leaning into the discomfort of extending a hand, or a simple how are you. If Jesus were here today, you wouldn’t find him in our cushy suburban churches, you’d find him hanging out with people like Bill. And, I think that guy knew what was up, because Bill is pretty darn hilarious.
Our night ended up in the “finest park in Minneapolis” and I think Bill is more than qualified to give out that award. Tucked away in a neatly trimmed bush was a pizza box Bill had saved. He offered me a piece but I didn’t want to take advantage of his hospitality. “Do you have a girlfriend?” he inquired. We shared some stories about losing love, and he told me not to worry about it. Any girl would be lucky to hangout someone who was “Cool as hell” like me. Boy did I need to hear that.
We talked a little bit about God. I asked if he believed in the big guy, and if I could pray for him. Before I left for the night we shook hands, he told me I was in his top 75 favorite people he had ever met. He said, “I love you.” And I think he meant it. I gave him my phone number and told him I would buy him a cup of coffee anytime.
When I’m with Bill, we can be ourselves. I don’t judge his past and he doesn’t judge mine. I don’t care what he’s done. There, on that bench was a human being that 300,000 people ignore, and I almost did. But that night Bill was there for me too in more ways than I could tell him.
“Are you an angel?” He asked. I wondered if maybe he was the angel.
When I got home, as promised, I listened to Bill’s favorite Rush album, “Hemispheres,” an epic record with tracks 18-20 minutes long. “Make sure you listen to the first song,” he insisted, “I think it’s about you.” Intrigued, I hit play and a rich electric guitar solo belted out of my Macbook speakers as I sat under three blankets, surrounded by overstuffed pillows.
‘i will find you food and shelter Show you fire to keep you warm Through the endless winter storm You can live in grace and comfort In the world that you transform’
The cities were abandoned And the forests echoed song They danced and lived as brothers They knew love could not be wrong
I don’t know if I will ever see Bill again or if his next phone call will be from jail. But none of that matters because Bill is my friend and we all need friends, especially the reckless and encouraging kind.
I hope God gives you the chance to meet someone like Bill this week and that when you feel something nagging at you to say hello, you do, because in the words of Rush, that’s how we extend grace and comfort, that’s how we transform the world.
It’s a long walk through this world, but stand tall because you’re one day closer to being home.