It was an abnormally cold day in May in Chicago and I was walking along Michigan Avenue. My camera was a cold hunk of brass in my hands and I had neglected to bring gloves along, since it was May. As I walked along shivering, I suddenly noticed this man and I stopped in my tracks. His shame was obvious. My eyes were transfixed on his sign and the words "I lost my job" pierced my heart for some reason. He wasn't the typical homeless person begging on the street. He wasn't shaking a cup of coins or verbally shaking me down as I approached. Instead, he cowered behind his sign and hid his face. I stopped directly across from him to assess the situation. As the minutes passed, I forgot about being cold. All I could think about was "I lost my job". And the way he hid his face. In a short while, I was convinced this wasn't a con, but instead a desperate situation.
I consider myself a rational person, and so my mind started to rationalize the situation. My mind said "he likely brought this on himself through bad choices". I wondered whether it was drugs, lack of education, criminal activity, or something I couldn't even imagine. Then I thought it could have been unfortunate circumstances out of his control. And finally I thought it could have been a royal screwing that put him out on the street. Eventually I realized it really didn't matter -- all the while thinking about how the conservatives and liberals in America drag one another over the coals about this very situation.
I went down on one knee, checked my exposure, composed the photograph, and hit the shutter. He never knew I was there, or at least he didn't let on that he saw me. I tucked some money in his cup and quietly moved on. I've had this photograph laying in my archives now for nearly 6 months. I rarely post this kind of photograph, though many street photographers see a scene like this as a great moment. Something about this encounter made me uncomfortable and over the last 6 months, I've looked at this photograph many times.
Recently, a dear friend of mine lost his job. He's 64 years old. We've been friends since we were little kids. We've climbed trees together, played pitch and catch, shot baskets, played ping pong in a dark, dank basement, camped out together, rode the very first iterations of skateboards down steep hills, jumped ramps on our bicycles, thrown plums at cars passing by from the bowels of a perfectly sculpted alleyway, laughed together until we cried, cried together until no tears were left, fought each other, yelled at each other, hugged each other, disappeared from each other, come back together like we were never apart, been best friends, been distant friends, watched horror movies together as kids, painted houses together, drove like madmen in our cars, listened to the Beatles for hours, drank too much together, chased girls together, made a bunch of mistakes, embraced every wrong path imaginable, embraced the grace of Christ when it wasn't cool, and everything else in between. But he lost his job at age 64. When I heard the news I couldn't believe it. My mind raced to figure out why and after awhile I realized, as I did on this cold day in May in Chicago, it really didn't matter why. What really mattered was "I lost my job".
I think we now live in a time where hearts have grown cold, colder than I could ever have imagined. For many, it's easy to walk by the man on this cold Chicago street and blame him for his plight in order to avoid feeling guilty about our lack of compassion.
My friend who lost his job has been a pastor for most of his adult life. As I imagined what he could have done to lose his job, I went back to the stories I've read in the Bible. I thought about the great men of God that I've read about over the years. Moses was chosen by God to lead the Jews out of captivity and into the promised land; along the way, Moses murdered a man. Abraham was the great man of faith who trusted God when all seemed impossible; along the way, Abraham had a problem with lying. King David was a man "after God's own heart". He committed adultery and tried to cover it up by having a man murdered. The disciple Peter was one of Jesus' best friends and yet he denied Jesus three times and watched him get nailed to the cross; afterwards Peter ran like a scalded dog. So what would it take to put a 64 year old pastor out on the street? Murder? Adultery? Lying? It occurred to me again, it really doesn't matter. We are all fallen people and the truth is we all fall far short on a daily basis. It's not lost on me that there aren't many churches who would allow Moses, Abraham, King David, or Peter to be on the Board of Elders, let alone in the pulpit.
Tomorrow it could be you, or it could be me. "I've lost my job". Here's what I think: better to be the one who lost your job, than to be the one who decided the sin justified such a desperate action. Of course, if you operate by the rules of our society and our world, you can perhaps justify your decision. But if you operate like God does, the decision to put someone on the streets is surely not an easy one.