February 5, 2015 by Alex Johannigman
I think serving as a missionary for a year ruined my life.
“Ruined” as in, “changed forever,” and “called me to live in a radically different, and often uncomfortable way.”
Let me explain how in the form of a series of stories from the end of last week.
On both Thursday and Friday, I got a chance to hear talks by Curtis Martin, the founder and CEO of FOCUS, the Fellowship Of Catholic University Students. In both of his talks, the first one to the Dallas chapter of Legatus, and the second one to a large group at a nearby parish, he mentioned that when he was 20 years old he told God that he’d give his entire life to serve Him, even if it was challenging or uncomfortable or required him to trust God a lot. He said he had many stories of how God called him out on that promise, including how he had recently struggled with the news that his newborn son would be born with a serious disability.
I had been looking forward to Saturday night all week because I had a ticket to go see Matt Maher (the topic of my last post) perform at a nearby church. During the concert the three musicians on stage devoted some time to reflection on the songs as they were about to perform them. The show was also a fundraiser for a ministry called Young Life Capernaum, whose volunteers live out a radical life of love by forming deep friendships with youth with disabilities.
As they were describing this ministry, I was reminded of my life as a missionary, caring for the homeless with the same love that I saw in a lot of the volunteers who were present and the friends they served. But in thinking about that time, I was reminded that I was no longer doing that very often. I was back in the “real world” working a job on top of going to graduate school, which didn’t give me much time at all to serve men and women who are in need.
I wondered if I was even still willing to sacrifice my time to help the marginalized. So much of my life now was focused on myself – acquiring knowledge in school and money at work and feeling happier and more fulfilled by spending time with my friends in what little free time I have aside from that. Towards the end of the concert I prayed: “God, give me a chance to love you through those who are in need. Give me some direction.”
As the concert ended, a number of my friends who I hadn’t seen in a while but were at the concert proposed that we go get some Mexican food afterwards and catch up. I was really excited to go, but as I approached my car to leave the church parking lot I was approached by a strange man.
“Hey, can someone help me out?” He looked right at me, because no one else was around. He looked very tired and disheveled, and smelled like he hadn’t bathed in a week. The rest of my group of friends had parked their cars on the other side of the parking lot so I was all by myself. I looked around to see if I could convince someone else to help him, but that didn’t look like it was going to happen.
“Uh, maybe? What do you need?” I asked.
“I’ve been walking for 2 straight days. I’m exhausted and just need a ride to Woodrow Wilson High School. I’ve got family over there.”
Sounds simple enough. He didn’t even ask for money. I guess I could be a little late to the late night hangout with my friends. The high school can’t be too far from here. He must just be a little lost.
So I looked up where Woodrow Wilson High School was and discovered that it most definitely was NOT close to here, but instead was a 30 minute drive to the other side of town! If I give him a ride, I realized, I’m definitely not eating fajitas with my friends tonight.
At this point I started to get more hesitant and look for someone else around that could give him a ride. After all, I have more important things to do which involve chips, salsa, and probably a margarita. At this point I see a Franciscan priest that I met a few months ago and a friend of his. “Well, you can try to pass this on to the priest and the Levite, or you can be the Good Samaritan yourself. Your call Alex.” God spoke to me in that moment.
Feeling totally called out in a good way, I told the scruffy man to follow me to my car so I could help get him where he needed to be. Over the next half hour we introduced ourselves and talked about our lives. Phillip told me about how he grew up in Dallas and loved playing football as a kid but suffered a very serious head injury playing college football which kept him in the hospital for years. He was then more or less abandoned by his family because they were tired of how much care he required due to his medical condition. He now lived in Phoenix by himself and worked a blue collar job. He had come to Dallas because he had heard that his mother had passed away and was trying to find more information about her and get in touch with family, but hadn’t had much luck at this point.
He had told me when we first met that his aunt lived near Woodrow Wilson High School, but it wasn’t until we got there that he informed me that he knew this because he remembered visiting her house in the late 80s, and wasn’t even entirely sure if she was even still there though he did remember what their house looked like.
“Seriously?!?” I thought to myself, trying to look calm externally. I was more than a little frustrated.
After driving around the neighborhood near the high school for over 20 minutes with no luck finding the house, much less having any confidence that they’d take him in if we did, I was ready to give up and asked him if there was anywhere else that I could take him. After I proposed taking him to a homeless shelter, which I later changed to a cheap motel due to how late it was, he asked if I could just take him to the bus station. After days of no luck finding his family, he said he had nothing left for him in Dallas and was ready to go home.
“Ok, that works. Your bus ticket is on me,” I said, knowing he had already spent the last dollar he had and needed to get home as soon as possible.
When we got to the Greyhound station and walked up to the ticket counter I was pleased to see that there was a bus leaving in just over an hour, but then a little shocked to see how expensive a bus ticket to Phoenix was – $166, more than the amount I had just spent that afternoon on a round-trip flight to visit my girlfriend’s family in Kansas City next month. Despite knowing that it was well within my budget to spend that kind of money on someone in need, I still wasn’t thrilled about doing it, but I recognized that what I had lost in my ability to give time to the poor since returning to the corporate world, I had gained in my ability to give financially. I bought the ticket, and then decided that since he hadn’t eaten in a while, we should go get some food.
I remembered seeing a McDonald’s just a block away when we had parked near the station, so we walked slowly over there, limited by Phillip’s chafed and exhausted legs. During the meal that we shared, Phillip asked a lot of questions about my personal life and what made me so generous (was it your mom or your dad?). Just by answering his questions I got to talk a lot about my faith, and even gave him a 15 minute crash course on the Theology of the Body and St. Thomas Aquinas’ definition of love as “willing the good of another.”
Around midnight I left Phillip as he boarded his bus home, thanking God for the opportunity to share the love and generosity he has shown to me with someone in need, as uncomfortable and frustrating as it was.
Two days later I went into the office and was still a little upset that I had needed to spend so much time and money helping a complete stranger (possibly due to a case of the Mondays). That afternoon I had a meeting with my manager in which he informed me that because our company had done so well this year, we’d be getting bonuses based on a certain percentage of our salaries. I suppose with God being as awesome as he is and knowing that I needed a reminder that he will return what I give tenfold either in this life or the next so I would stop being a punk, he took this opportunity to make it clearer for me. How much was my bonus? Exactly ten times what I had spent on Phillip’s bus fare and meal at McDonald’s. Mind blown.