What I am about to relate may well be considered foolish by some and controversial by others. And with good reasoning I suppose. Foolish in that even I have no good defense with which to defend my methodology. Controversial in the sense of what one must do when conscience prods a person to do that which is plainly right.
There is a song I enjoy by Amy Grant which has the following lyrics; “I’m talking ’bout the soul all alone/ Needing the daily bread,/ Someplace to lay his head. / And I’m talking about the neighbor on your street,/ Won’t you look him in the eye,/ Take time to speak./ That’s mercy../ Tell me, ‘What can I do today?’ ” (**) I enjoy a lot of her music, but this one is just one of my favorites.
Today is Friday, and as I got off work yesterday it was yet another extremely hot day compounded by the humidity that had decided to make an unwelcome visit. Much like any other day I got in my car and had set the day aside this afternoon to spend time with my youngest son for an afternoon picnic, some cards (Go-Fish.. his favorite because he always seems to win.) and some one-on-one soccer. (which I always seem to win.) Some prayers come with much petition and patient waiting while other prayers are answerred immediately and persevere over time. Fifteen years ago I asked that I could live anything but a normal, boring life. Ever since then it has been anything but normal or boring. Those who know me personally and my providential adventures can attest to the odd gravitation I have for people and circumstances out of the ordinary. Little was I to know that this day was to be yet another installment in this continual fulfillment of a prayer answerred without hesitation.
After the picnic with my son, Dusty, I returned him to his Mother’s house and began the drive home to my apartment. It’s a winding road full of curves and I was lost in my thoughts while listening to the radio. As I made my way around one of the curves, there I saw a familiar sight.. that of a hitch-hiker along the side of the road. Now, for since as long as I have been able to drive I have had some kind of insanity that overcomes me at times when it comes to hitch-hikers. Perhaps it’s due to the time I had to walk 25 miles home because no one would give me a ride as I trekked along the roadside. Perhaps it’s an unhealthy lack of fear for my own safety. Or as others have theorized.. perhaps I just don’t excercise common sense. But for whatever reason I have many times when I simply cannot refuse help in such a case. I never pick up hitch-hikers when someone else is in my car so as not to endanger my passengers nor do I ever encourage anyone to pick up riders. One never knows the history or state of desperation of the man or woman you allow into your vehicle and the perhaps fatal results that could develop. Yet, in light of my own personal safety.. I do what I do without any rational defense for it.
On the positive side of things, I have met many interesting and distressed people over the years this way. People with big dogs, conga drums, disorientation, violence, fear, drunkenness, heartbreak.. and with all of them I have always found myself in the most interesting of conversations and empathy. On the darker side I’ve realized I was several times with people of either a violent or disturbed mind. Sometimes both. Thus far I’ve fared well though I have heard of others who have not survived to regret their decision to stop for a weary traveller.
Yet with all that said, within the second I first laid eyes upon this hapless stranger I instinctively pulled over despite the fact that there was not much shoulder to the road. What I saw approaching in my rear view mirror was a sight that confirmed to me I’d made the right decision. With one of his arms distorted inwards and a severely handicapping twist to his leg it was obvious this man was in need of help. He reached the window of my car and took hold of it with a hand that bled from a fresh wound. He fell into my car dragging two small bags of luggage with him and an aluminum cane that, as I grabbed it to make room, I realized was covered solid with deep scratches all along its surface from many years of hard use. He closed the door behind him and as I looked at his distorted face I noticed there was blood under his chin where he’d fallen previously in the roadside due to his handicap.
As I pulled back into traffic I asked him his name and how far he was going. He held up his hand in sign language to accompany his mangled words which were extremely difficult to understand. Mistakenly, my first thought was that he might be retarded but as I got to know him better I realized he simply had lost his ability to speak with any clarity. He said his nickname was ‘T.J.’ and that he was going as far as I was. With some effort we began to converse and he would spell out in sign language any words I couldn’t understand. I have only a minimal understanding of ‘sign’ but altogether we did pretty good together. He told me he was from Illinois and had been living in Arizona (my home state) before coming to California.
I asked him what had happened to his body and he told me of a severe auto wreck that had broken his right leg in four places, his arm in two places, his throat and head. He used to be a truck driver owner/operator as a profession before the accident. Since then his life has become somewhat challenged. I told him a bit about myself and that I was going as far as Murrieta. He said he wanted to get to Arizona. I turned up the radio and soon there we were.. just two guys tapping and swaying to the sound of the oldies song, “My Guy” having a good old time. After some high volume Johnny Rivers and Beach Boys songs I began to realize the sad thought of leaving T.J. alone on the road knowing he was so far from his destination. I told T.J. we’d make a stop at the local Border Patrol check-point to see if they could help us in some way. He smiled real big and thanked me for offering to help.
I pulled into the Border Patrol parking lot, told T.J. I’d be right back and went to one of the officers in a patrol car. I explained the situation and he said there wasn’t anything he could suggest. I went into the main office and approached one of the officers. In an instant all other conversation stopped and all eight men were fixed on what was going on with me. The officer I spoke with was asking a few questions about T.J. as to whether he had any family nearby when suddenly one of the other officers interrupted loudly and said;
“Can I ask you something? Just why did you pick him up to begin with?”
At first I had trouble understanding the question. He was challenging me publicly as though I’d been caught doing something I shouldn’t have. Though I am normally a somewhat reserved person I responded equally,
“He was beside the road. How could I just leave him there?”
To this he asked in return;
“And what do think we can do?”
I looked at all the officers and said that it would be helpful if any of them had a list of shelters I could call where T.J. might be able to stay or get some help. They began talking amongst themselves unable to suggest anything until finally the man who’d spoken to me said, “Take him over to Highway Patrol, since you found him on the highway.” I said I’d found him ‘near’ the highway, on a side road to which he then said, “Then take him to the Sherrif’s Department in Temecula. We can’t help him here.” I then realized there was no point pursuing it further with them and even as I turned around to leave I heard one of them say to another, “Sherrif’s department can’t help.. it’s out of their jurisdiction.”
As we drove off I asked TJ if he had any family nearby he could stay with and I misunderstood him to say he had a place to go near the Pala Indian Reservation. I asked him to point to where I should go and off we went down the freeway once again. He led me to some off-ramps and side-streets until soon we were at the empty parking lot of a church with a trailer in it. We got out of the car.
“T.J.”, I said, “Do you know someone here? The Pastor maybe? Does he live in that trailer?”
“No.”, he replied. “I will walk from here.. find somewhere to sleep tonight.”
“So, you don’t know anybody here then?”
“No. Thank you for help.”
“I’ll tell you what, T.J.”, I said, “I got a plan.. get back in the car.”
Okay, so I didn’t have a ‘complete’ plan, but I had the idea of a plan. We went to the local Sherrif’s department but it was already nearing sundown and they were closed. I knew this even as I went to the door but checked hoping perhaps someone might be inside. T.J. followed me to the door and I then noticed a pay phone. I looked in the phone book and called every county agency and crisis help line I could find. Some would only take women with children or drug emergencies while others were back-logged with calls and left me on hold. As I listened to the recording of the last number I could call I looked at T.J.’s expectant, hopeful face waiting on me. I’d run out of ideas. T.J. took my hand, asked me my name again and kept squeezing my hand saying, “Thank you, Henry.” as best he could. I felt my back was against the wall as much as his at this point. I thought inwardly, “God.. I need some help here. I really need some help.”
I started to break the news to him, about how it was yet another busy line that didn’t answer. My mind raced to think of someone, anyone who could help but nothing came to mind. For a minute that seemed like a lifetime my head swam with no one I could think might help within even the large Riverside county. We’d called all the ones referred from the hot-lines. Then suddenly it came to me. I slammed the phone down and told T.J., “It’s gonna be alright! I know a place. We’re gonna get you a place to sleep tonight, let’s go.”
We got back in the car and drove to the other side of town to a place called the Calvary Chapel Conference Center. It’s a place used for conferences, meetings and such. We pulled up the driveway and the first pedestrian we came across was a man named Brian, who as it turned out happend to be one of the Pastors of the facility. He led us to the main lobby where I explained the situation. He was very respectful and kind with T.J. and made it his personal mission to call more facilities until we could get T.J. settled into a good place. For about an hour he called every facility he knew of and left messages all over town. As we waited for a return call he took the two of us to the staff kitchen and offerred his complete hospitality. He then took us to the on-campus coffee shop where there was both music and a Bible study going on. T.J. and I enjoyed both while we waited on Brian who went back to make more calls.
By now it was about 9p.m. This man, Brian, then returned very excited and gave me directions to a friend of his who runs a half-way house for men just a few cities away. They were already preparing a place for T.J. and were expecting our arrival. Brian prayed for both of us before we left and expressed his thankfulness to T.J. for brightening his day with the chance to be of some help. T.J. was ecstatic as we got back in the car and we made the drive out to the shelter.
We arrived at a place called “U-turn For Jesus” and, though it was getting late in the evening there were about six men waiting to greet us and help in any way. The two of us went to the office to square away some information with the Pastor. As it turned out the Pastor and TJ shared the same birthday as well as the same first name since ‘T.J.’s birth name turned out to be Robert. We got T.J. settled into a bed and a place to put his things. The other men took to him like a long-lost brother and helped him negotiate any short stairs or gravel driveway that gave T.J. trouble to walk. I spoke with the Pastor a bit more and several of the men to get a feel for the place. I felt very, very fortunate for the facility and kindness these men provided us. I intend to return there later today to check in on T.J. as well as continue a friendship with three of the men I met there. Finally, it was getting near 11:30pm and I had to leave in order to let them get settled in for the night.
As I drove home I couldn’t help but realize how much had changed in several people’s lives all due to one man hobbling along the roadside. I believe the officers we met were challenged with a different viewpoint on the issue of mercy. The Pastor, Brian, found opportunity to excercise persevering kindness until he could secure help for a stranger. And as I spoke with the men on staff at the men’s shelter it was already apparent they were learning to be of a serving heart to T.J. who needed their help in ways he could not return. As for me, as repeatedly as T.J. kept taking my hand through the night, looking me in the eye and with a struggled smile told me, “Thank you, Henry.”… I know he will always be etched in my mind and heart never to be forgotten. Despite the hard luck he had sustained in the past T.J. is one of the kindest men I’ve had the pleasure to meet.
Do I then condone picking up strangers along the road? Do I by this article hope to encourage you to do likewise?? My answer to both these questions is very emphatically, “NO.” This world is a dangerous place and only perhaps my providential willingness to act upon my beliefs and a divine overseeing is the only thing that has kept me alive thus far. This would include the time I picked up a man who revealed he’d planned on crushing my skull with a rock years ago, but decided against it because he said I was a decent person. (After saying this he rolled down the window and tossed a large, six-inch boulder out into the road.)
No, rather instead I hope to illumine once again the point that what this world is sorely in need of is mercy that takes action. This and the fact that not all the people in this world have given themselves over to the marching tune of self-survival. There are people in this world like Brian and the men at “U-turn For Jesus” who are willing to extend mercy and love with no regard to what social, political or financial benefit it could bring them. They do it merely because it is right and good to do so. There is need for such men and women. Not to become some sort of ‘working-class hero’ who is esteemed for a moment. No, but rather as encouragement that we might ask ourselves, “What can I do today?”
** “Helping Hand”; Copyright Amy Grant/ 1994, Age to Age Music,Inc. (ASCAP)
Henry Velez is a writer, traveler and vlogger currently living in the Philippines. He has written extensively on social issues, relationships and travel.