His name was Micah, and his beard was stained yellow with nicotine. But he had a toothy grin that was contagious, even with a mouthful of partially-chewed food.
He was out of place — an awkward, lanky man, a German living in Spain, the land of olive skin and machismo. And he had a tale to tell.
Micah was homeless, obviously, but the whole story was far more complicated. He had crossed the border, traversing France and ending up in Andalusia, the land of the lisp, and couldn’t find his way home. Rather, he wasn’t able to. Because he had lost his papers, his own country wouldn’t admit him. Having seen my own friends struggle with visa issues — standing in line all day long to get a few pieces of paperwork signed and then being denied — I believed him.
Micah had come in search of work, but that dream was now long gone. He spent every night wandering the streets, asking for handouts: a few pieces of change, a sandwich, a prayer.
I had the honor of hearing this man’s story, and I was better for it.
But the truth is I almost missed it. Almost walked right past him.
It was Junior year of college, and our study abroad group had an agenda for the evening. We had just finished our weekly Bible study and were patting ourselves on the back for being so spiritual. Now, we were onto more important things. On our way home for supper, and then out for another night of flamenco bars and practicing the language, we were focused on our stories.
But he called to me from the darkness, and compelled me to answer. At first, I didn’t hear, and then I simply ignored the voice. However, finally I submitted to the call of a man in need — crouched in the corner of an alley, smoking a cigarette. This was the first time I had ever done anything like this, ever stepped out of my comfort zone. I was from a farm town, after well, and we rarely saw homeless people — never, in fact — much less German ones.
We shared a meal at McDonald’s, Micah and I.
Or rather, he ate, and I watched. If memory serves me correctly, he ordered a Big Mac meal — with a beer. And I knew I was going to like him.
Then my new homeless friend said five words I’ll never forget: “You are the only one.”
The only one who stopped. The only one who paid attention. The only one who took the time to ask his story.
I couldn’t believe it. Surely, this wasn’t true? Not with the hundreds of people that must walk by him every day. But Micah assured me it was, that most people act as if they don’t see him at all. As if he were invisible.
I immediately felt ashamed, because I almost didn’t stop. In fact, it took a few whispers and then a shout for me to turn around. Even then, what compelled me to act was guilt, not philanthropy.
And I knew I was no saint, no Mother Teresa. I was only doing what I felt I had to do. CLICK HERE to tweet that (and a chance to win Wrecked, Jeff’s brand new book).
But somehow, mysteriously, I did turn around.
I heard Micah’s story. And it changed me. Not because of the story itself, but because of the sharing that transpired. He asked me why I stopped, and I mumbled something about Jesus and that I thought it’s what he would’ve done.
He didn’t mock or question me when I said this. He only looked me square in the eye and through a muffled mouthful of fries, said, “I love God.” He smiled, and I couldn’t help but join him. An hour later, I still couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.
Micah taught me something important that night: that sometimes there is no Plan B. Sometimes, we are the only solution. Here’s what we need to understand about other people’s stories: they matter. More than we realize. And sometimes, the only way these stories get told is if you have to the courage to ask them.
I don’t want to paint myself the hero — I’m not.
I didn’t even want to stop; I did it begrudgingly. But maybe that’s permission to enter into the messiness of other people’s stories with your own baggage and mixed motives. The important part is you act, and allow God to redeem the whole thing.
As a storyteller myself, I’m learning the importance of not only the telling, but the listening. The opening of ears and exchange of humanity that comes when we take the time.
When I said goodbye to Micah, he still had bits of burger in his beard, which had been there the whole time. I didn’t have the courage to tell him — I wanted to remember him like that, that flawed and beautiful. That human. I walked away, his visage embedded in my mind, and even now, I can still see his face. I never forgot him.
And I never looked down a dark alley or gazed at a gutter the same way.
Jeff Goin’s first book, Wrecked: When a Broken World Slams into Your Comfortable Life, includes a version of this story and comes out this week. To find out more (including how you can win over $158.00 worth of free stuff when you buy), visit wreckedthebook.com. For a chance to win a copy of Wrecked tweet this article (click here).
[To win a copy of Wrecked: When a Broken World Slams into Your Comfortable Life, you must click the link to tweet. We will randomly select one winner on Friday August 3, 2012 at 12pm EDT.]