Against my better judgment, I used to think that if I worked, tried or prayed hard enough, I could ward off all of the evil that the world threatens me with. If I gave my all at my job, saved enough each month, invested earnestly in my relationships, stayed involved in my church community, read my Bible and set goals for the future, I would be safe. In the clear. Untouchable.
Then, I started regularly interviewing homeless and formerly homeless people as part of my job. I’ve stopped being surprised by how much I learn from them during our conversations. Each person I talk to has a unique story—one that scribbles far outside the lines of what I believed about homelessness before I met them.
I think it’s only fair to let their stories speak for themselves.
Adam loved his wife.
Her prognosis was poor but inconclusive. She was strong and he was brave, so they fought it full force. The medical bills grew. The loans piled up. The kids asked questions. And her condition worsened.
When her heart gave out, Adam lost his wife and everything else. With an empty wallet, a mountain of debt, three grieving children, no daycare, and the feeling of infinite sorrow, he was consumed.
At that point, Adam had a lot to live for but not a lot of life left in him. Before long, he lost his home. He and his three children became homeless.
Roy had finally “made it."
His childhood in Brooklyn wasn’t easy, but he chose hard work over the distractions. Joined the Marines. Started his career. Got married and had three children. He was well on his way to achieving the American dream until it all came crashing down.
His wife dropped the bomb – she was leaving him for his best friend. She took the children and everything else including the home that they were about to move into.
After working so hard just to fall even harder, Roy started to give up. He became a homeless alcoholic and stayed that way for fifteen years before getting help.
Marcia was a city bus driver.
For the first time since she had started driving her route, it was cancelled for the summer because the local college wasn't offering summer classes. Money was tight for those few months, but she got by with savings and odd jobs.
Right when she started to catch up on her bills, a shoulder injury did her in. Physically unable to turn the steering wheel, Marcia’s livelihood was threatened. As a single woman with no family close by, she had no money, no job, no support, and a severe injury.
In a matter of weeks, she was living on the streets.
My chest tightens when I finally hear the truth that these stories are screaming in my ear: that we’re all one tragedy, heartbreak or mistake away from destruction.
And all of us heard that message loud and clear when a deranged retiree opened fire on thousands of innocent people in Las Vegas just last week. Some felt the bone-chilling terror of experiencing it first-hand. Others united in mournful fury as our morning newsfeeds affronted us with reports from the previous night’s massacre. Another fatal shooting. The worst in American history.
Along with acts of mass violence, an unthinkable number of natural disasters have hit many parts of the world since the start of 2017. This week, it's the Napa and Sonoma country fires, which have already devoured hundreds of homes along with hospitals, schools, wineries, local businesses and other structures. A picturesque place, filled with thousands of people who woke up late Sunday night to defend their lives, families and livelihoods.
In the wake of such devastation, we're painfully reminded that everything on this earth can be taken away in an instant. Our jobs. Our health. Our loved ones. Even our lives. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we’re all living with the constant threat of sudden loss—and we all have different reactions to it. Numbness. Panic. Determination. Despondency. And at the very core of any loss, we discover our frail lack of control, which can either humble us or break us.
Adam, Roy and Marcia–who are a lot more like you and me than we care to admit–are all people who lost something, lost their way and lost themselves. None of us are immune to life’s ugliest hardships, so let’s stop pretending that we are.
Now for the good news.
In time, Adam, Roy and Marcia all arrived at the same point: a moment of humility that reconciled each of them to their circumstances and granted them the will to move forward. They each sought help from local agencies and ultimately met the Lord in the midst of their hardships.
Here’s the loudest message I’ve heard after doing all of these interviews: true hope can only ever be found in the face of surrender.
That message challenges me to make a choice. On the one hand, I could choose to bemoan the fact that my pipe dream of control will always be just that. To live in the fear of circumstances outside of my control. Or maybe to seek control through excessive caution that slowly cripples me. I’m not making option one sound very good, am I?
Or, I could choose surrender. Give control to the One who already has it to begin with. Because even though I’m not immune to hardship, homelessness or the sheer evil of strangers, I’m also not immune to God’s unconditional grace. None of us are.
When Paul writes to the Corinthians about the thorn in His flesh, He says that He prayed to God three times to remove it. God responds with, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s reaction? “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses… For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
The fiercest strength isn’t found in control, caution or doing all the right things at all the right times. Perfection doesn’t stretch our limits, threaten our comfort zones or challenge us to push beyond them. And muscles can’t grow unless we use them.
God walks with each of us through the refining fires of our lives, where none of us would willingly go ourselves. He’ll sit with us at rock bottom for as long as it takes for us to see Him there and then He’ll lift us up by His strength, not our own. When my lack of control is replaced by my assurance in His total control, I walk in peace because I walk with Him.
I think about Adam, Roy and Marcia often. Their testimonies have changed my own understanding of homelessness, tragedy, control and God’s hand in it all. I hope they’ll do the same for you.
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4).
Note: Names and select details have been changed to protect the privacy of each individual mentioned.