In a church bible study one night, a woman talked of her encounter with a local panhandler.

“I saw him standing on the side of the road,” she said. “But I saw the sign, before I actually saw him.”

The experience left her wondering how simple human sensitivities could somehow overshadow the  human suffering at play in what she saw.  Her comments, however, acknowledged a key truth. With the sign, the man came across as disruptive, out of place and inconvenient.  Without the sign, he may have otherwise gone invisible.

It occurs to me quite often, that its a whole lot easier to not see someone than acknowledge that they actually exist.   Signs make us look. They ask us to do something, and we have to make a choice. Neither choice makes us feel much better about what we saw. If we give, we spend the rest of the day wondering what the person will do with the money. If we don’t give, our guilty conscious suggests that maybe there was more we could have done.

Human to human: we don’t like having to make that choice.  It would be a whole lot easier if they would just keep their signs to themselves.

There are plenty of opinions about what we should do with those people holding signs on our streets. There is debate on the threshold by which their solicitation becomes aggressive versus passive. Some would argue for strict enforcement of the law–fines, arrests, even jail time. Others advocate that those already experiencing a hardship shouldn’t be further penalized.  In the name of deeper impact, many forgo a gift to the individual, opting instead for resources given to agencies working on the bigger picture of homelessness.

I, on the other hand, would like to suggest we apply a different concept to this scenario, and that is forgiveness.

Allow me to demonstrate.

Two years ago, the most chronic of homeless men lay in a shopping center parking lot. He’d had too much to drink. His day had been particularly desperate. Frankly, he just didn’t want to live anymore. Had some caring shop-goers not realized what was going on, an unsuspecting driver might very well have brought his troubles to the most abrupt of ending.

After a lengthy hospital stay and months of rehab, he returned to the apartment he’d been living in to find a landlord who’d had enough.  They had already taken a chance on him, overlooking an iffy criminal background and prior eviction.  The company he was keeping, the noise he was making and now, this outrageous incident was more than the property owner wanted to carry.

He was called in for a meeting to receive the eviction papers. Then, came his final plea:

“I used to be somebody,” he said tearfully. “I had a house, a job, a wife, things to be proud of. Then, I lost it all. Now, I just can’t seem to make myself believe I’m worthwhile again.”

For a year and half, he’d been homeless on the street. He’d held a sign, begged for money and often found himself in the uncomfortable position of being in the way of everyone else’s everyday life. He described the afternoons that he would sit on a Caroline Street bench for hours, simply because he had no where else to go. He talked about what it meant to have moved off the street, begin earning an income again and be able to return as a a paying customer to the same stores that shuffled him away.

“It doesn’t take long to lose everything you have,” he said. “But its awful hard to start believing that you deserve to have it back.”

Touched by the image of the human behind the tumultuous story, the landlord allowed the man to stay. One more shot among the many given before, but this final act of forgiveness was all he needed.

Two years later, he lives in the same apartment, has taken up maintenance work for the landlord and sends us an e-mail on the anniversary of his sobriety date. Here’s what he had to say this year:

“I am so sorry for not keeping in touch more often,” he wrote. Everything is okay here. Truth be known, I’d rather have a white house with a picket fence, and a wife, but I’ll survive. I have a little chihuahua doggy to keep me company. We are inseparable.”

“Guess what?????,” he continued. “My second year anniversary is March 20. No back slides, no excuses, not even a taste of alcohol. I don’t even think about it anymore. I hope you are all well. I know I’ve said it a hundred times, but thank you for saving my life.”

At the end of the day, I’m hard pressed to accept any responsibility for saving this man’s life. My agency housed him, a few times. Our staff helped him get income. We did all the “social-worky” things we are supposed to do, but as you can see there was really only one thing that mattered.

He was about to fail again. His house of furniture was headed for the curb, he was headed for the street and if circumstances had their way, he didn’t have many nails left to collect for his coffin.

Then, someone saw him–the man behind the sign. They saw him and believed that he was worthwhile, worthy of forgiveness. The forgiveness of others was what finally allowed him to forgive himself.

Perhaps, it was sheer luck on this man’s part. Maybe, the landlord was having a good day. I much prefer, however, to assume a touch of a Collisions 1 Jesus, “the image of an invisible God,” who “reconciles himself to all things…making peace by the blood of his cross.”

You see, when one human can see the brokenness in themselves it becomes far easier to understand the brokenness in others. Only one thing in history has sought to make right those broken pieces in all of us once again.

Do you see Him?