I met Mark (not his real name) on my very first ride (July of this year). I had been out for only about ten minutes when I saw him attempting to get water from a spigot outside the City of Palms Stadium. My guess is that he was around 20 years old; baby faced and rail thin. Mark was wearing a dirty shirt, tattered pants, and he had no shoes. It was brutally hot, and he obviously needed water, as the water he was getting was very warm and discolored. It didn't look very appealing, to say the least, as it dripped into his bottle.
I slowly pedaled over to Mark and asked him if he would like a cold water. He just looked at me like I was crazy, so I went ahead and pulled one out. He continued to look at me like I was crazy, so I asked him again and assured him I was not a cop. Eventually he said yes, and then asked who I was and what I was doing. I briefly explained (as best I could) about the idea behind Good Samaritan Cycling Team, and was met, not surprisingly, with another puzzled look. I asked him if he had a safe place to stay, and he unconvincingly murmured that he did. It was obvious that Mark was uncomfortable with me, and perhaps with being out in the corner of the field where we were, so after asking if he needed anything else I said good-bye and pedaled away.
My interaction with Mark was very short; we couldn’t have been together for more than three minutes or so. But I left our encounter both haunted and deeply challenged. In the first place, the reality of my segregated life became very clear. I have some background working among the poor and with the homeless, but my image of someone in dire straits (at least in our country) was still much older than Mark. As he and I spoke, I felt that if something didn’t change he would not last much longer, and that’s not a thought I typically associate with a teenager or young adult. Mark immediately showed me the extent to which my “knowledge” of the poverty, the “opiod crisis” and despair in my own city was simply a knowledge of facts and figures and new stories, rather than a knowledge of real people and experiences. It’s easy to use facts and figures when planning, or discussing ministries or growing support, but face to face knowledge reveals the truth about our own preparedness, our motivations and our heart.
The challenge, and the gift, that I received from Mark was the gift of awareness. I knew as soon as he was out of sight that I had very few ideas about how to serve or love someone in his position. And our encounter immediately raised the question of how far my care for a neighbor would go. Would I be willing to help Mark find a shelter? A meal? Would I let him use my phone? Would I advocate for him? Perhaps in God’s mercy I was not put to the test (Mark was pretty suspicious of me), but I was made aware of what the test was. I then realized that I had created a plan for how I was going to love my neighbors. But God doesn’t ask for a plan; he asks for love working through faith. A plan isn’t a bad thing, but it’s just a tool to get the process going. God made me aware, through Mark, that the calling was right. I had confirmation; I should be out on the streets seeking to care for my neighbors in Christ’s name! But God made me aware that the calling was far deeper than water and bikes and volunteers, and that my first “trip” was just my first baby steps on this new journey.