And I’ve honestly struggled with that at times over these last few years as the organization has continued to grow and I’ve been privileged to have a broader presence in the media and public forums.
My goal has always been to do what is best for the youth we serve. And, to make a difference. And while I feel fortunate to be able to have the reach and audience I do, I still try to fly under the radar with certain projects.
One of those things is what I’m writing about today. And I’m sharing it, not because I want praise or commentary; I’m sharing it because I want to inspire you to think big, even if sharing this makes me a little uneasy.
Earlier this afternoon I took a homeless gentleman to lunch. Let’s call him “Mike” for purposes of this blog.
I was so angry after reading about the bomb threat this morning at the Indianapolis Jewish Community Center that I decided I would complete a personal challenge I began back in September of 2013. Back then, just beginning the process of getting divorced and figuring out what and where my life was heading, I decided that at some point before I died, I wanted to take 25 people to lunch who I met on the street who were down on their luck. It was a pretty straightforward concept I laid out with some simple rules:
- I had to do it spur of the moment and couldn’t put it on my calendar in advance.
- I would take them to wherever I was already planning on going.
- I would make it clear that this wasn’t part of some religious or church program (and often would joke about how I’m just happy I don’t burst into flames when I go to church on Christmas Eve).
- I would offer to buy them anything on the menu except alcohol.
- I would ask if they wanted to order another meal to go.
- I would ask if they wanted me to introduce them to the manager and see if they were hiring.
- I wouldn’t ask about their past or how they got to the moment in time sitting across from me.
- I would listen.
- I would be raw and real about my past, present, and future.
- I would typically give them what cash I had on me, or buy them a gift card for food in the future.
- I would sit at a table with them instead of my usual preference of sitting at the bar (more than I can say for most relationships I’ve been in).
- I would never pressure them into joining me, instead I would simply lead with, “my name is Tom. I’d love to buy you lunch right now if you’re willing to sit down and talk with me for the next hour or so.”
Mike joined me for lunch at a quick-serve establishment. I had seen him in the parking lot on previous occasions. I asked if he wanted to join. He lit up at the opportunity more so than most with a big smile and a firm handshake. We went through line, ordered, and sat down. He started the conversation with what I have learned is pretty standard, “Why are you doing this?”
“Because, I can. Because I love this city and everyone in it. Because I don’t know you, but I know that we aren’t any different. Because, we are all residents of No Mean City.”
He wept a tear or two away. He began to tell me about his life, growing up here, losing his home after his wife died a few years ago and how he just stopped going to work. How they didn’t have any kids and he had felt forgotten by his siblings. How he had started using drugs while he still had his house after his wife died and that’s why he stopped going to work.
It was my turn to wipe a tear or two away.
We chatted about his past and my past. I shared with him my losses and loves. I shared with him why I love Indianapolis. We laughed about the Colts. We talked about the neighborhood he grew up in. He told me he has bounced in and out of shelters for about 2 years now. He said he has been sober for a few months now and recently reconnected with his sister who lives in Pittsburgh and she was saving up to get him a ticket out there.
I asked how much he thought the ticket was. He told me.
I asked if I booked it for him, would he use it.
He said yes.
So, I booked it.
The reality is that I’ve had this one last lunch to buy to hit my original goal of 25 people joining me stalled and was stagnant for more than 6 months because I just hadn’t gotten around to making it happen. There was exactly 1 person who knew about this project of mine and that was only because I ran into her out at lunch one day with a stranger she had never met and she had some questions for me after the fact.
It has been an adventure. I’ve walked into a place where I was told that the gentleman had previously been asked to leave for asking for cash from customers and had to vouch to allow him to be seated. I’ve had to lend a sport coat to a guy who joined me at the Club so he met the dress code. I’ve sat at my usual spot in my usual places and made introductions between the manager and my guest. I’ve had the guy who really wanted to teach me the ways of religion and was very angry at me that I didn’t go to church regularly. I’ve laughed and I’ve cried. I’ve had a series of relationships that only lasted an hour.
I don’t know what the current status is of any of the 25 people I’ve shared a meal with. Maybe that’s selfish of me, I know I’m at capacity with my schedule and life and I don’t have more capability than lunch and conversation. But, for that hour or so I’ve spent with these individuals, I’ve been able to share in raw discussion without filter. We don’t always agree on politics, religion, the city, schools and education, but the conversation and discourse is a process that carries a tone of respect with it from both sides of the table.
This is about our city, our community, our people. I don’t write this about me, I write this to ask you to find your way to do something good. It doesn’t have to be something grand, but I am sure there is something out there that you already do that you can modify in a small way to serve others.
Just do good. Be you. Embrace what our city is and the culture we have here. Represent No Mean City.