10/23/2012 06:50 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2012

Learning Friendship on the Street

My job at The Mustard Seed entails a variety of different roles, from working the front lines where I engage directly with homeless men and women who access our services, to answering phone calls from those who find themselves suddenly on the streets with no idea where to go, to helping create and facilitate educational street experiences to teach kids and teenagers about homelessness and poverty.

A few weeks ago I was driving home from church when I decided to stop by The Mustard Seed downtown, just to see who was around and to say a quick "hello" to some coworkers. I pulled into the parking lot and spotted one of our guests, with whom I have worked closely on several occasions this past year.

As an alcoholic, Jimmy (not his real name) had been working hard to stay sober in recent months, first attending support groups, then getting into a sober-living environment. The staff who rallied around him had celebrated each milestone along the way. The doctor had told him that if he ever went back to drinking, his liver would not physically be able to handle it. He would be dead within weeks. Consequently, every day he remained sober was one more step in the right direction -- one more step towards life, and not death.

So when I approached Jimmy in the parking lot that evening, my heart sank. He was alone, slumped against the front steps, his bags scattered around him. As I got closer, I realized, as I have so many times since I started working at The Mustard Seed a year and a half ago, that this was not going to be a happy ending to the night.

Jimmy didn't see me at first. I didn't want to startle him, so I called out his name. He looked up, and as his slightly glazed eyes registered my presence, his face broke out in a familiar smile.
"Taj!" He pushed himself up against the railing of the stairs and waved me over. He stumbled as he stepped forward to give me a fist pound -- a common form of warmth and friendliness that we often use in our professional relationships with guests.

"What happened?" I asked him. "Why are you out here?"

Jimmy gave me a sad smile and proceeded to tell me that he had relapsed and consequently was evicted from his sober-living environment. He felt that he had failed, so his new logic was to just keep drinking; in his words, "At least I'm successful at doing that."

As I searched for words with which to tackle his reasoning, I saw two of his friends who had been sober for several months -- also Mustard Seed guests -- approach. And as they did, I learned a new kind of friendship that went beyond my limited scope of understanding.

One held a container of hot food, while the other carried a thermos of coffee. Both stood over Jimmy and stared at him for a few seconds, then slapped him on the back and chuckled. One said, "That was a pretty epic fail, dude!" referring to his relapse. The other joked, "It better not be my turn next!" And Jimmy merely grinned sheepishly then gratefully accepted the food and hot drink being held out to him by his friends.

In my world or yours, maybe this kind of humor doesn't make sense. Maybe it seems like his friends aren't being helpful, or taking his relapse seriously enough. Perhaps you feel like they were far too forgiving of the mistake Jimmy made. Eighteen months ago, that might have been my thinking, too.

But when the laughing and joking quieted down, Jimmy's friends told him simply that they would be here to support him when he was ready to try again. They didn't say "if;" they said "when." You see, Jimmy's buddies had full confidence in him. They knew that one mistake was not enough to define their friend. They believed in his ability to change. A lapse in judgment was not sufficient for them to condemn him.

As I watched their interaction, I couldn't help but wonder whether I have ever shown that kind of unconditional friendship to the people in my personal life. I can be quick to love, but equally quick to judge; I care deeply about people, but sometimes at the cost of becoming too critical or over-involved in their decision-making, as if it's my duty to reprimand them or point out when they've messed up. But that's not what I want for myself and my relationships. I want to be like Jimmy's buddies.

We were created with not only the ability, but also the desire, to love and be loved. We were never meant to exist in isolation, but to live in community -- supporting one another in both success and struggle.

People experiencing homelessness are a community just like any other (though perhaps more open and accepting than many). No group of people has demonstrated to me more kindness than my friends on the streets.

I took my job at The Mustard Seed because I wanted to show compassion; instead, I have found it shown to me, on more occasions than I can count. And through it all, I continue to be reminded that those with no fixed address have no less capacity for love and friendship than anybody else -- and no less of a desire to have it demonstrated to them either.

The two men knelt down on either side of Jimmy, took his arms, and helped him stand unsteadily on his feet, so they could take him to a nearby shelter where he would sober up and stay safe for the night. With his arms around each of their shoulders, Jimmy smiled and said goodbye to me, then walked with his friends down the street and out of sight.