It’s the day after Thanksgiving, and the holiday season gift-buying is in full swing. Black Friday specials have the shoppers out in droves. Downtown Portland is a sea of moving people with packages, shopping lists, and agendas. Me, I’m armed with my Nikon camera, hoping to capture some artistic street photos.
I stand on a street corner for a half hour or so, just getting a feel for the people walking from store to store. I notice that some of the downtown citizens remain outside the retail giants’ doors. There is an older gentleman attempting to hand out copies of his religion’s periodical. There are street performers and musicians demonstrating their talents in hopes that the holiday revelers would donate a bill or two in the spirit of the season. The young man standing next to me has a stack of pirated CD’s and is trying to get a passerby to listen to his iPod long enough to decide to buy a track or two.
Then, there are the homeless. Like in every city, they have cardboard signs about their most immediate needs. When I spotted Cecil, I immediately liked his face. I semi-hid behind one of the large pillars in front of a department store so I could raise my camera without drawing too much attention. It didn’t work. Cecil looked directly at me as I released the shutter.
I like taking pictures of the homeless because their images easily tell a story. But it is important to me that I’m not exploiting those who are down on their luck, so I often engage them in conversation. Sometimes I give them a small donation for their time and their picture.
Cecil. Photo courtesy of Chad Estes.
I pulled out a dollar and handed it to Cecil as we began to talk. I joked with him that he needed to come up with a fancier outfit if he was going to compete on the same street corner with the silver-painted juggler and the animal-balloon-making clown. He smiled but admitted it had been a rough morning. “I’ve been standing with this sign for five hours today, and now I have just $6.”
I wasn’t in a hurry to get away. I found I had some energy for this gentleman, and so we introduced ourselves and continued our discussion. He told me that he and his wife, Mary, had been on the streets for just a couple of weeks. If I understood him right, they had tried to help someone else out, but in doing so, broke some rules where they were staying.
They were evicted to the streets. They first went to a shelter, but Mary got lice from the bedding there. Now they were staying in a hostel that cost them $24 a night for the two of them.
“Last night, I didn’t come up with the money and we had to stay outside,” Cecil said. “I could do it again if I had to, but I’ve got to get a room for my wife tonight.”
It’s not hard to empathize with Cecil. I’d do everything I could to make sure my wife had a roof over her head, too.
When our conversation ended, I simply said, “God be with you, Cecil.”
He replied, “God be with us both.”
I didn’t get very far, probably about half a block when I returned to give Cecil a $20. “You and Mary have enough for the room tonight,” I said. “God is with us.”
He answered with tears.
Truthfully I don’t know the veracity of Cecil’s story. I don’t know how he has handled money or jobs in the past. I don’t know where he will be tomorrow. I don’t pretend to think my $20 changed his life or altered his future. What I do believe is that I was fully present with him when we were together, and God met us there.
Cities this size used to terrify me because of the sheer number of people in them. The press of humanity and the pressure to somehow save them all overwhelmed me. Bite-sized areas are different. I understand evangelism in my neighborhood -- I can count the number of houses around mine. I understand evangelism in churches -- I can count how many people respond to an alter call. But how in God’s name do we reach entire cities with better news than their inhabitants’ current conditions? How do we make a difference?
I know it is a trendy buzz word, but I think it has some meaning this Advent season.
Jesus tells the story of a good shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go after the one that was lost and bring him back to the safety of the flock.
I wonder if in this economy he might have shared it the other way around -- leaving the 1 percent who are making it on their own to go after the 99 percent who are struggling. It seems to fit Jesus’ standard operating procedure; he did, after all, come to earth to occupy for the sake of all of us who were lost.
What does it mean to occupy?
Jesus tells another parable where a king is going on a journey and leaves his treasure with his servants. His command was “occupy until I come.” What he expected of them was to use the resources he left them to continue to expand his kingdom. I think we’ve been tasked with the same challenge.
Occupy: be personally involved in expanding the Kingdom of God, one person, or one need, at a time…
Advent: until he comes.
How will you occupy this Christmas season?
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Chad Estes is a writer and photographer in Boise, Idaho. He is on a journey from fear to love, from rules to relationship, and from religion to freedom. You can read his blog at www.chadestes.com.