By Joyce Coronel
I was driving home from the Wrangler News office on a warm spring afternoon not too long ago when I saw him. His name, I found out later, is Chris.
You’ve probably seen Chris or those in similar straits, haggard and sunburned, standing at the freeway entrances with their cardboard signs, pleading for a little compassion.
Most of the time, I look away. I’m usually on the wrong side of the street or in a hurry or just focused on my own concerns. Sometimes though, I pause. I think of Judi Messer, a woman I interviewed years ago.
When I look back over aging, yellowed copies of the publications I’ve written for over the years, at times I don’t have any recollection of having written a particular article. But Judi? She was different. Her story affected me deeply and continues to reverberate today.
Judi is a registered nurse who once worked in a hospital’s cardiac critical care unit. The high-stress job led her to reconsider her path. Eventually, she switched to an organization working with the homeless. Years later, when most people would have retired, she’s still helping the poor through volunteer work.
Judi’s mini-SUV is packed with bottles of water and sports drinks as well as what she calls “Hands of Hope” bags that are filled with things like clean socks, lip balm and nail clippers—items she knows homeless people need and don’t usually have. The Hands of Hope project she started some years ago is still growing far beyond the Valley.
On the day of my early departure from Wrangler, I didn’t have any of the Hands of Hope bags on me but my heart was moved to reach out to Chris, the young man standing on the corner of the 101 and Ray. The light was red, so I rolled down my window and called out to him. He hustled over.
“Are you hungry?” I asked him, looking into his gaunt face. When he nodded, I told him I would come back with some food. Just then, the motorist in the vehicle behind me started to honk. “I’ll be back soon,” I told the man before I drove off.
At the next light, the motorist who I figured was in a big hurry pulled up beside my vehicle and rolled down her window. I thought to myself, “You’ve got to be kidding!”
“Yes?” I inquired as she and I locked eyes. She was an attractive, 30-something blonde with blue eyes that held concern.
“I’m worried about you,” she said. “That man back there—you’re a young woman alone—you’re vulnerable. That’s dangerous, what you just did.”
“If I die helping someone like that, I’ll be going to straight to heaven,” I told her. “I believe in heaven, too, but I’m an officer. We just had a car-jacking a couple of days ago.” “Well, thanks for caring about me and for calling me young,” I said with a smile. The light turned green and we both drove away. I’ll admit her warning gave me pause. I’ll definitely take her words into consideration and I’ll be sure to keep my car doors locked from now on. I would never approach someone like Chris on a deserted street in the dark or walk into a crack house to pass a tray of cookies. I’m not stupid. But I’m also not going to stop reaching out to assist people my heart tells me are in need of a little compassion.
I called Judi a few days later and asked if people ever tell her that interacting with the homeless is too dangerous. “All the time,” she laughed. Then, more seriously, she added: “But it’s what God has called me to do.”
Like Judi, I take my faith seriously and it tells me to feed the hungry. Writing a check to support organizations like Tempe Community Action Agency or St. Vincent de Paul is a wonderful way to assist the poor. But the more difficult gift is the gift of self, taking the time to look someone in the eye and show them they are not alone in this world. Chris and those in similar situations are our brothers and sisters.
John Henry Newman once said, “Calculation never made a hero.” I’m definitely no hero, but I would agree that people like Judi Messer and the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta don’t count the cost of their efforts. They wouldn’t ask Chris for ID or drive past him. They remind the rest of us that life isn’t about what you get—it’s about what you give.
Yes, please do be careful out there. But never let fear stop you from reaching out and bringing more light and love into our community, one person at a time.