If you listen closely among the homeless community—at least those who have been around for a while—you will hear them talk about a woman who was incredibly important to them.
The late Barbara Gear spent 20 of her retirement years feeding, counseling and sheltering some of the most challenging homeless in our community.
No doubt, the tangible impact she had on people’s lives was immeasurable. Yet, I am always struck that people who remember her most do not talk of the things she did for them, but that she was their friend.
I was a teenager and young adult when Barbara was at the peak of her ministry. I knew of the work and appreciated it; but mostly, I admired from a distance the ways she would meaningfully connect with neighbors on the street.
Then one summer, I sought Barbara’s guidance on how I too could be useful to the community.
When she answered the phone, I launched into a dissertation of my life and stirring passion that was brewing in my heart. I had barely rounded the corner of wanting to save the world when she abruptly interrupted.
“Tuesday,” she said. “Meet me at the warehouse and we will go from there.”
Just an invitation to come along and be a part of whatever was happening.
I had no idea what I was showing up for when I arrived that Tuesday. I only knew that the way Barbara connected with people on the street was intriguing to me, and I wanted to be a part of it.
The warehouse door was unlocked when I got there. I went inside and followed the shuffling sound to where Barbara was already packing boxes on the loading dock. We squeezed them into her 1980-something hooptie and we embarked on a tour of the downtown hotels and ally-ways.
I wondered as we drove, how these people on the street would know we were coming. Was there an advertisement put out or something? How would they know where and when to find us? But as we pulled up to the first stop it would be blatantly clear that Barbara knew a whole lot more about people on the street than I ever imagined.
The car had barely come to a full stop in the first motel parking lot before we were surrounded. Mamas toting babies approached. Strapping men that hadn’t showered in weeks lingered in the background. And slowly behind came the middle-aged adults whose canes and weathered complexions told more of their story than words ever could. They knew their friend was coming, and they were waiting.
Barbara popped the trunk and I stationed myself at the back, handing bagged meals and water bottles to those who approached. On the surface, our job that day was routine. The need was overwhelming. And the brokenness we encountered made it difficult to pull away believing that we had made any kind of difference at all. But what I saw Barbara doing in the background, changed me.
She talked for a long time with a man whose eye was so damaged that it looked as if the ball had fallen from the socket and deflated on his face.
I recognized another man and his wife from other projects Barbara had been involved in. They were often working alongside her in a kitchen or carrying heavy boxes to and from her car.
She bear hugged a young girl and whispered something in her ear, but as she pulled away I watched whatever pain had been bottled up inside trickle down her face.
I never learned the context of these interactions, nor do I know if these stories had a happy ending. But whatever the details, they were unnecessary to understand that something important was happening.
From the dawn of civilization and the creation of mankind, our scripture tells us “it is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Thus, God created woman to accompany the primal male on his journey through life.
In Jesus’ final prayer with the disciples in the upper room, he plead for unity and companionship as his disciples carried forth his mission. “My prayer is not for them alone,” Jesus says (John 17:20-23). “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message that all of them (emphasis on the all of them) may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”
As the New Testament reminds time and again, we are made for loving neighbor, helping one another and interconnecting as closely as heavenly father is to messianic son.
We see in countless other Biblical friendships, that the greatest of God’s children are only such because of a neighborly bond. David had Jonathan, whose loyalty, compassion and sacrificial giving protected and supported the young king’s rise to God’s call in his life. Moses had Aaron, who supported and often spoke for him in convincing Pharaoh to free the Hebrews. Naomi had Ruth, a daughter-in-law who did not abandon her in the days she may have struggled to survive.
In much the same ways, Barbara sought to be the friend of those she met on the street. The empathy, compassion and relentless hope she demonstrated may not have made them less homeless or resolved the trauma that led them there, but she saw them and loved them. And at least in that moment, the people she touched knew that they mattered.
A few months before Barbara died, I took some time to go and visit her. Although, weak from her treatment and deeply impacted by illness, we talked for some time and expressed our gratitude for one another.
But as I left her house, it occurred to me that I too had been transformed by her love. Her invitation to me that summer day in my early adulthood had not looked a whole lot different than the embrace she offered to her street friends in the motel parking lot.
Just the kind of love that opened the door and cleared the way for God to do the rest.