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Jesus in Disguise

Many years ago as my mother and I strolled through downtown Santa Cruz, on a beautiful California day, I felt overwhelmed by the number of people living on the street. Averting my eyes, I focused instead on getting to our destination, failing to realize that my mom had strayed from my side. The moment I noticed her absence, I wheeled around to find her visiting with a man who appeared to be homeless.

I watched from a safe distance, my discomfort palpable, as the two chatted like old friends. After about 10 minutes, my mother bid the man goodbye and caught up with me. In response to my questions about the encounter, she explained: “I smiled and said hello, introduced myself, and asked him his name. He told me he had been badly injured while working on a construction site. Uninsured, he lost his job, his car, and his home.”

My mom delights in talking to the down-and-out, disfavored, and dispossessed. After these conversations (and, sometimes, no conversation at all) she offers kindness and encouragement.

That day I watched my mom pull two carefully folded dollar bills from her pocket and hand them to her new friend. My husband, Steve, calls these offerings “Audrey bucks.”

In addition to befriending the homeless, my mother also makes a point of supporting the “infrastructure”—her term for soup kitchens, shelters, halfway houses, and other resources geared to help those struggling to survive. “If a person is so hungry they can’t raise their head from a pillow, how can I expect them to help themselves?” she will ask.

Over the decades I’ve strived to follow my mom’s example. For instance, there was Charlie who I would occasionally pass on my way home from work. One day, while stopped at a massive intersection, I was able to ask Charlie what he learns by spending countless hours holding his hand-written sign that reads: Homeless please help. He paused and said, “I’ve never been asked that question before. I need some time to think about it.” When I saw him next, he told me he learned that there are more good people in the world than bad, God always provides and a smile is worth more than money.

I keep Charlie’s quote above my desk.

My husband continues a running dialogue with Charlie on his drive home from work. Often, he’ll include my mom via speakerphone so she can hear the conversation—which has become a high point in her day. She smiles from ear to ear and often tears up as she listens to Steve share a kind word and some Audrey bucks with Charlie.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the needs I see around me each day, and the knowledge that I can’t meet even a fraction of them, no matter what I do, how much I give, or how hard I try. My mother taught me that even though I can’t do everything, I can do something. And my something—offered with love—is enough.

"'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."' (Matthew 25: 37-40, NRSV-CE)

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