It’s easy to assume that we understand someone, just by looking at them. This is such a natural instinct in all of us. It’s fun to challenge. People will always surprise you.
A few days ago, I met a homeless man named Ryan. In the course of our conversation I found him to be so multifaceted. At times funny, warm, threatening, and tragic. Here’s the bottom line – Ryan is not just a type of person. He’s an actual person - a unique creation of God. And he’s worth knowing.
According to his story, Ryan grew up in California with parents who were in and out of trouble. They were deep into drugs and caught up in all kinds of criminal activity. Although Ryan gave me permission to record our conversation, I still can’t quite pick up on this next part. He told me his parents were somehow connected to a string of murders that took place in a Northern California park during his childhood. Long story short, by age 10, Ryan was a ward of the state.
His mom is currently in a mental institution call Metropolitan LA in downtown Los Angeles, and his dad is in prison.
He didn’t tell me much about this time, but it would be accurate to say that foster care didn’t sit well with Ryan. By age 12, he was homeless and living on his own. Like many people I’ve talked to, Ryan is pretty upfront about being homeless. Drugs have been a big part of his life, ever since he was introduced to the habit by his family and friends. He told me that when I met him, he was just returning from an addiction recovery group. This hasn’t been an easy ride for him.
Ryan’s stories don’t flow in a straight line. They tend to bounce between funny anecdotes, passionate declarations, and defensive statements. I wanted to hear it all.
It seems like things were going better for Ryan in the mid-
In May of 2007, while Ryan was serving a stint in jail, his wife dropped their 1-year-old son on his head. This happened 8 years ago, but Ryan’s pain was raw as he described what happened next. I’m not sure how this worked, but Ryan remembers being at the hospital. Maybe he was granted some kind of release, or maybe his timeline was off regarding his prison stay. He talked in vivid detail about seeing his son being poked and prodded with needles at the hospital. He desperately pushed the doctors to find a way to alleviate the swelling in his son’s brain. He is extremely angry with their decision to leave him in an incubator. Ryan remembers watching his son experience swelling that caused him to look like a child twice his age. The baby boy died a few days later.
I sat stunned at this revelation. Ryan was openly weeping. I didn’t say a lot
Ryan has a symbol for the word “dangerous” tattooed on his arm. He hasn’t had an easy life, to state it mildly. The incident with his son left a massive impression on him. It was definitely a turning point, and not a good one. The streets are a really threatening place to be. Ryan remembers seeing a woman with black eyes. She had been assaulted and robbed by some men that Ryan knew. I asked him how he survived on a daily basis. He said his philosophy was, “smile pretty, cry later.” Ryan does have a great smile.
We talked about Jesus. I talked about the hope that Jesus came to bring the outcasts and the refugees. Jesus believed in an eternal kingdom where the first would be last and the last would be first. With that understanding, eternity becomes the great social equalizer. In 100 years, our existence will be determined by an entirely different set of values. Ryan isn’t so sure he buys into everything, but he’s interested. When I first met him, he quoted me 2 Corinthians 5:7, which says, “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” When I got up to head to work, Ryan continued to follow me. He grabbed my phone at one point, but handed it back. We had casual conversation and he pointed out several of the places where he hangs out.
Before leaving, Ryan asked me if I ever wanted to go to church with him. He didn’t have one in mind, but I could tell he was open. I pointed out the church where we’re attending on Sunday mornings. It’s just one block down from where we were standing on 10th and Taylor. I told him about the free coffee and pastry, available every Sunday, and that I would love to see him. He seemed excited. I haven’t seen him yet.
Before he walked away, Ryan grabbed me and gave me a hug. With sincerity he said, “I love you.” I was a little shocked, but I believed him. I felt the same way.