This is being shared to you, with permission, from Sally Anne Gist, from the Florence, AL area. I have never met Sally in person, but consider her a good friend. Please read her words about a homeless man she grew fond of, and is now living in the arms of Jesus. This story will also give you a glimpse of the horrific pain of addiction that coinsides with homelessness in so many situations:
I’m asked that a lot, so I’ll tell you a story.
This is the short version, of course, because Leon was epic, and we were but a passing detail.
I might not have noticed him standing in line at the soup kitchen if he didn’t look so familiar, something about his shiny cheeks.
He was the last guest to leave. I cleaned a table nearby, trying to hear what he was telling the volunteer.
His shoulders quaked at the mercy of the world. His ribs were broken; it hurt to cry.
He was asking for a place to sleep because the truckbed he’d been sleeping in was towed away. He was homeless, now more homeless.
The first biting frost of fall was due that night.
The volunteer closed his phone, apologetic, shaking his head. No one could help him.
It was time to go home.
I watched for the homeless man every week after that but didn’t see him again, except in my conscience.
For months I carried a dread I couldn’t explain, convinced he’d died from cold or worse, plagued with questions the naive like me ask—
Why can’t we help everyone? Why does anyone have to be homeless? Why can’t they sleep in the soup kitchen after dinner? Why—?
On and on.
It’s just not that simple.
And yet it is, but it would be two more years before the Room In The Inn ministry was birthed in our area by two souls who saw the need.
Until then, I assumed I’d let a man freeze to death.
But on March 23, the week before Easter when things thought to be lost are resurrected, the line in the soup kitchen formed, and there he was!
He remembered me, but not like I remembered him. His reaction was comical when I grabbed him like an uncle and shouted, I’m so glad to see you! You’re alive!
I didn’t even know his name.
Leon. His name was Leon. It means lion-hearted.
After he sat down with his plate and tea, he told me of how his friends at the police station found him wandering that night after he’d left the soup kitchen. And because Love is creative, they conjured enough outstanding criminal charges against him that would shelter him in jail for the winter, 120 days.
It was a sentence of mercy.
He plead guilty to every petty crime they offered him, and lived.
Now it was spring and he was free.
My husband exhaled slowly after listening to me ramble about how the man-with-shiny-cheeks was alive! And he needs everything…
So we bought a backpack and filled it with everything I thought a homeless person needs—toiletries, socks, chapstick, gloves, snacks, a puzzle book. You name it, it was in there.
I didn’t know a heavy backpack is not an ideal gift for someone with no home and endless ways to be robbed.
Still, he received the gifts with gratefulness… Shaving cream and razors for the man who needed his beard to keep him warm; toothpaste and a toothbrush for him with almost no teeth.
Such was the nature of our relationship. I knew nothing about his world, but I was learning. God was unfurling layers of life I never knew existed, trying to teach me that my idea of a miracle and His are not the same thing.
To save someone is a profound mystery, because it’s impossible. But with God, all things are possible.
Most often what I thought would save someone turned out to be the very worst thing for them.
Like the time a woman’s trembling hand shook no-thank-you to refuse cash I was pushing at her. She said the cash would scream out for drugs, not food.
She needed food, not choices.
And like the time I sat outside a motel with Leon, crying like a fool, as he offered me a napkin to wipe my tears. Only people with zero possessions know the value of a clean napkin, and he’d offered me one of his.
He needed gratitude, not pity.
For the next two years, God provided week after week of motels, just enough food, and stays at rehabilitation.
Once he got all the way to a rehab facility only to find he’d be required to shave his beard.
That was a deal breaker.
He hitchhiked home and was back on the streets faster than you can say no-shave-November.
Our friend was sick in so many ways. It was amazing to me that he was still alive, but no one was more surprised than he was.
He’d lost his family and everything else because of an addiction he traced back to the age of eight, when his parents gave him and each of his cousins a beer. They thought it would put the children to sleep early so the adults could play cards.
He survived injecting himself with pet tranquilizers to get high, to forget, and finally to die, but he never could die, no matter how hard he tried. I don’t say that lightly; it was just true.
So he was utterly alone and often thought if he just went to sleep on a frozen concrete picnic table in the woods, he’d die in his sleep. That was his prayer.
He told us his heart-bleeding stories with such humor, I felt guilty to laugh, but when you’re trying not to cry, laughter is grace.
One deserted park he described was frequented by what he called the homo-sekshuls, and he said one night he felt sure if he didn’t freeze to death lying on one of those stone table slabs, Surely them queers would kill me in my sleep.
But the next morning he awoke, alive, to find a thin quilt draped over his body.
He laughed a hacking, chesty cough and said, That dang quilt saved my life!
Mercy lived in those woods.
We picked him up one morning to ride to church with us.
I was giddy with anticipation. I just knew a bit of love from our friends, some good happy music, and a sermon on grace would resurrect all the dead things in Leon and he’d live happily ever after.
It might have done it, but he was drunk.
I tried to pretend it was perfectly normal to stand next to an inebriated man on the front row while he made swimming motions with his hands in the air, enraptured as the choir tried not to stare.
Their smiles were genuine, though, because there was no shortage of love in that place.
He was both a picture of what we believed and what we were on the inside. We longed for his happy ending. Week after week, we asked God for it.
He was always welcome.
His reactions to church were comical. Sometimes he’d ride his red bike as far as the edge of the property and lean against the adjacent garage, just staring down at the glass entrance of the church.
I’d slumped there with him on that asphalt more than once, trying to be ladylike, waiting as he wrestled between heaven and hell about whether to go in.
One morning he went to Sunday School with us.
As always, he was welcomed, but at once he just got up and walked out. I found him outside, conflicted and crouched like a spectator in the corner of the sidewalk helping his nerves to a cigarette.
Everyone bustled by in small herds when suddenly he found himself surrounded eye-level with long tan legs, stilettos and mini shirt-dresses.
The ladies’ class was arriving.
He became very graphic about the effect it was having on him, and when I finally calmed him down, he said, Well, I reckon they have just as much right to visit here as I do.
I barely caught my laughter in time, realizing he truly thought they were prostitutes. He thought we had a special ministry for them.
I said, No, Leon! They’re not visitors; they belong here!
So we went back in, along with all the forgiven friends of Jesus, and sang our hearts out to the God who truly loves sinners—all of us—more than life itself.
I never knew exactly what to do with Leon, because I assumed we were there to help him. The arrogance of that kind of thinking is why I almost missed many of the lessons he was in our life to teach us.
For a while, it seemed right.
God had given him an apartment, quaint and homey. Ironically, it used to be a church, with a charming blue door. The Sunday School class descended on it before he moved in and furnished it with everything a person needs to live.
Suddenly the man who owned nothing but a red bicycle had dishes, curtains, furniture and friends.
We were honored to get to meet his son and beautiful granddaughter during this time. He was truly loved.
In his words, he was the richest man alive.
For a while.
But then, as often happens, things changed. Bad news found him tucked away in his church-home, and he left the cozy blue door behind to return to the streets.
Then for some time he was able to rent a home from a couple he’d met in that Sunday School class.
He was never far from our minds, especially when we learned he had cancer.
I imagined someday he’d disappear, and he did. But not like I thought.
In literature, there’s a term called deus ex machina, and it’s used when some outside, unexpected power intervenes and changes an impossible situation.
Kind of like a miracle.
Turns out, Leon also had a daughter. She had learned he was very sick and after years of aching and wondering about him, sought her daddy out at Easter.
He had changed, just like her brother described.
There was another resurrection coming, because Reconciliation and Forgiveness had found their lost son.
Come fall, she made the long journey back south to check on her daddy. He was not well.
Homelessness doesn’t always look like a person living on the streets. Sometimes it’s a person with no one to come home to.
It’s family that makes a home, so she took him to hers.
Suddenly, the man waking from a nightmare had everything he’d ever wanted, even two more little grandchildren.
Often he’d sit outside on her deck and ask into the air, Am I in heaven?
His daughter and her husband loved him. He told her his stories, she cooked him homemade food.
Among his things she found a Bible with a card inside. It was from us.
Receiving a message from her was just like the day I saw Leon alive again in the soup kitchen after worrying all those months what had become of him.
He was still alive, after all, again.
And though he was painfully sick, he was happy. He had a home and a family—not strangers, but his very own family, redeemed.
Only God can do that.
For a few short weeks, he lived.
Then the second message came. He was gone, slipped away surrounded and heart-held, with the semblance of a smile on his face, as if he knew a happy secret.
That was a week ago today.
I imagine that faint grin had something to do with finally accomplishing death that had long eluded him, only to awaken fully bursting with life in the presence of God.
God only knows why He writes certain people into our lives, but He had one more wink for us…
When Leon’s daughter shared the special pictures of his funeral, there was a very obvious incidental headstone in the background…
That’s our last name.