On my very last day with the Relief Bus in New York City, I had the opportunity to watch as the purposes of both New York City Relief and The Bowery Mission were fulfilled in the life of one man… Jole.  His story is far from over, but I had the privilege of walking along side of him as he took his first steps toward a free and meaningful life…

It was a beautiful, sunny day in the Bronx.  Serving soup, snapping photos and chatting with people on the street, I was in a really great mood.  Looking back over my time with the Relief Bus that day, I felt absolutely honored to have been a part of it.

At one point during the day, I got into a conversation with a homeless man named Jole (pronounced “Joel”).  He had been on the streets for more than ten years… in and out of shelters, in and out of programs, but pretty much resigned to a lifetime of homelessness.

But when he came up to the Relief Bus that day, he was ready to make a change.

A Confident Guy

Now, Jole is a confident guy.  Despite signs of a difficult past like the scar on his forehead and the flecks of white hair in his scraggly goatee, he carries himself with an air of pride.

He suffers from a unique case of Amblyopia (commonly called “lazy eye”), where both of his eyes work, but not together.  As a result, Jole frequently switched his “dominant” eye as we talked, forcing me to really pay attention if I wanted to keep making eye contact.

I wondered as we talked if it was perhaps a subconscious way for Jole to have at least a semblance of control…

Jole is a very confident guy!

In the course of our conversation, Jole mentioned his desire to get into a decent program once again.  After sleeping in the corner of an abandoned lot for several days, shivering in the icy rain and suffering through the constant pain of a sprained ankle, he had reached the end of his rope.

I told him a bit about the Bowery Mission, and his eyes started to grow wide.  “Well, that sounds real good,” he said.

After Jole and I talked for a while with Steve Pastor and got a Relief Bus referral form written up, Steve asked him to stick around for a couple of hours so we could get him a subway ticket to get down to the Bowery.

Jole got a cup of soup and walked a short way down the sidewalk to wait.

Some graffiti in the Bronx near where I met Jole. Click the image to see a larger version!

Uncertainty

As the day went on, however, I started to worry that Jole would have a hard time following through.  It’s a big, big step to ask someone who has been on the streets for ten years to leave their neighborhood, take a train to some unfamiliar part of town and sign the next six months of their life away to an organization they’ve never heard of!

So, after talking with Steve, I decided to do something unique.  I went over to where Jole was standing and offered to go with him to the Bowery. I offered to pay for his train ticket and sit with him through the whole intake process.

It's not easy to leave a life on the streets.

He agreed.

So, I grabbed my bag, said goodbye to the team and headed off down the street with Jole.

As we got closer to the subway station, I could see in Jole’s body language that he was starting to have a few doubts.  His eyes were distant, like he was deep in thought, so I asked him, “Having second thoughts?”

“It’s the weather!” he replied.  “I mean, now that it’s getting nice, this is when you can make a lot of money on the streets.”

“How?” I asked.

“Lot’s of ways.”  He didn’t elaborate.

“Tell you what,” I said, “Let’s go down to the Bowery, look around, talk to the people there, and if you don’t like it or if you change your mind, I’ll buy you a ticket and send you straight back to the Bronx.”

“Well, ok…” he replied.

Walking Commercials

When we arrived at the Bowery Mission, Jole was impressed.  Right off the bat we were given sandwiches from a nearby Whole Foods (a day old, perhaps, but tasty nonetheless!).  While we ate, Jole looked at the price tag on the bottom of the box and his eyes went wide.  “Seven bucks for a sandwich?  You were right.  They do have good food here.”

As we sat around waiting to see an intake counselor, just about every person we met was a walking commercial for the Bowery.  Smiles, handshakes, joy… One random guy came up for no reason just to tell us that he had gone through the program successfully and now has his life totally in order.

Jole also saw a few people he recognized.  After seeing one older man walk by, Jole had a look of astonishment on his face.  He turned to me and said, “I knew that guy on the streets! But he didn’t look like he does now, man.  He was a mess.  Totally in the gutter.  I barely even recognized him just now.  He looks good!”

This Bowery resident sent his picture home to his mother, but he was so cleaned up she didn't recognize him!

When one Bowery resident saw me, he ran over to give me a big handshake.  I had given him a couple 4×6 prints of his portrait the week before and he had sent one home to his mother.

“Nobody at home recognized me in the picture!”  He said.  “When they last saw me I was such a drunk that I was always filthy, falling over… Now I’m clean and I don’t look the same at all!”

When he left, I looked over at Jole.  He again had that look of astonishment on his face.  Suddenly all the good things I had been saying about the Bowery were more than just words…

The Decision

By the time we finally sat down with the intake counselor, Jole had switched his decision between yes, no and maybe probably a dozen times.

At some points he would talk himself into it (“Huh. I could give six months to a place like this…”) and at others he’d talk himself out of it (“Maybe I should just come back in the winter or something… I’m not sure this place is right for me.”).  I tried not to push it too much, choosing to simply encourage him whenever he seemed most doubtful about the idea.

Joining the Bowery's program is a bigger step than it might seem...

Things were going well as the counselor told Jole what to expect from the program.  Until Jole asked him one final question.

“Now I’ve been a smoker for ten years.  Where will I go to smoke?”

“Oh… no” said the counselor, “We do not allow smoking at all for our students.  We’ll help you through with patches and things, but you can’t smoke once you’re in here.”

Hearing that hit Jole like a bolt of lightning.  He leaned back in his chair, put his hand over his eyes and let out a groan.

“Woah… I did not expect to make that decision today.”

The counselor left to give him some time to think.  Jole wrestled back and forth on the issue, eventually making up his mind that he just couldn’t give up smoking.  Not yet.

But then, something unexpected happened.  Just when I was ready give in to disappointment, Jole straightened up in his seat, looked right at me and said, “No. Wait.  This is my life.  This is my decision.  I can do this.  Let’s get that guy back in here so I can sign the paper. I’m ready.”

A Fighting Chance

Within 10 minutes, Jole had a bed, he had a place to put his things and he had a group of other Bowery residents looking out for him, making sure he had sheets and towels, and giving him all sorts of encouraging words.

Still a bit surprised that he had actually made the decision to stay, I put my hand on his shoulder and prayed.  I prayed for courage and strength and I prayed that his cravings for cigarettes would be totally taken away.

Jole... Given a fighting chance once more.

With Jole safely in the hands of the Bowery’s capable staff, I walked out of the dorm, waved one last goodbye and headed back out onto the street.

I walked to the nearest subway thinking about all that had happened over the previous four or five hours.  Jole, a man who had been homeless for a decade, now has a chance to turn his life around… to experience the grace and dignity of a life following Jesus.

This incredible second chance would not have been possible without the work of New York City Relief or the Bowery Mission.  Two ministries working in concert, doing what they were made to do… Now they have the potential to change one man’s life forever.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that Jole will stay.  Perhaps the nice weather will finally get the better of him.  Maybe he’ll decide that he prefers the freedom of living on the streets.

But I do have hope that Jole can actually make it.  Why?  Because of one simple act that happened just before we headed down to the dorm.

As the intake counselor stood up to get his keys, Jole reached into his pocket and said, “Here.  Throw this away.  I don’t need it anymore.”  He took something out and tossed it to the counselor.

In that moment I knew that Jole had a fighting chance.

Flying through the air was a small, blue lighter…

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About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Michele said... 

    Reply

    April 16th, 2010 at 7:42 am  

    I am praying right now for Jole. I will pray for his strength everyday while he chooses to change his life! Barry, God introduced you to Jole for a reason and you have certainly done God’s work with him. Please keep us posted on Jole. God is truly amazing but what is even more amazing is YOU and your ministry. Thank you Barry for all that you do. Knowing you makes me want to be a better person to all those who are not as fortunate. May God bless you!

  2. Steve Buczkowski said... 

    Reply

    April 16th, 2010 at 8:42 am  

    Barry – I’m speechless. What an amazing story, yet one that is so far from over. You have captured all the Relief Bus does so well.

    For any of you from Grace sitting on the fence, I challenge you to come to NY with me in January of 2011 (or with Eric and Traci Baker in October of 2010) to serve on the bus. It will change your life forever. Be a part of this. Change some one’s life. Give yourself the opportunity to look Jesus directly in the eyes, to shake His hand, to feed him. Humble yourself by having a homeless man who was in prison for 30+ years minister to YOU. I guarantee you will get more out of this than you will give.

    Serve Him with me.

    Steve – sbuczkow@hotmail.com

  3. Lisa Santee said... 

    Reply

    April 16th, 2010 at 12:17 pm  

    Barry, thanks for being the hands and feet of Jesus!!!

  4. Maeven said... 

    Reply

    April 16th, 2010 at 1:17 pm  

    Barry-
    Thanks for the continual reminder of hope through your story of Jole. I can just picture the assessment and intake now, and feel refreshed to perform my intakes and assessments with as much patience, compassion, and awareness of human dignity as you had with Jole.

    :)
    -maeve

  5. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    April 16th, 2010 at 1:37 pm  

    Thanks for taking us on the journey with Jole. Wow, the image of that lighter will stay with me a long time!

  6. lori said... 

    Reply

    April 16th, 2010 at 3:42 pm  

    thanks, barry, for sharing! praise You Lord Jesus! what a gift it is to be able to come along side someone standing at the threshold of change. it’s where heaven and earth collide. it’s a beautiful day!

  7. Jim.M said... 

    Reply

    April 16th, 2010 at 11:04 pm  

    I read this early this morning and thought about it through the day, there is so much in this story. One thing that spoke to me in this was the two sides of giving and receiving love and grace, and how the characters in the story gave and received these gifts. We also see how the staff at the Bowery Mission are so effective at showing the Love of Christ to the men they serve. They understand where Jole is.

    When you have been “out” for so long it becomes easy to believe you are not worthy of Love, and not deserving of Grace, it’s easier, more comfortable to stay out. You begin to believe the lie about yourself, and are afraid to be Loved, suspicious of anyone showing Grace.

    The story shows us the patient expression of God’s unconditional love from a community of souls some of whom themselves are reborn, delivered from the same dark place, and we see the surrender and acceptance of someone given the opportunity for a new life hid with Christ.

    We see the leading edge of the Kingdom breaking through the darkness.

    Through Jole’s eyes… we see God’s outstretched arms from the doors of the Bowery Mission beckoning him home.

    Romans 8:39

    Thanks Barry for another look at God’s work, and thanks also for being there to capture it and show us.

  8. Dave Quigley said... 

    Reply

    April 30th, 2010 at 10:33 pm  

    hey Barry – this is an awesome story. I love this because you walked with him through it – not forcing him, not embarrassing him but just walking through it with him it. And I love his comments, “No. Wait. This is my life. This is my decision.”

    I love that ….. I am so inspired by his decision.

    Thanks
    Dave

  9. Breanna Sipple said... 

    Reply

    November 16th, 2011 at 12:52 pm  

    I love this. I learned something from how God used you in Jole’s life to guide him toward the help he needed: meeting people where they are at, seeing their needs, offering to go along with someone while they are making a decision for change -while still being willing for them to make the decision themselves. You left it up to Jole to make the decision but made the effort to help him take steps forward. God’s love shines through the way you interacted with Jole.

    Sometimes that’s hard, I feel, because when we see a need we want to just help people and try to convince them of what we think they need to do. But in the long run it’s better when they don’t feel pressured, and instead feel free to make such a impacting life decision on their own.

    I also liked how powerful it was for Jole to see the transformation of others like him that had made the decision he was considering.
    What an awesome story of transformation.

  10. Breanna Sipple said... 

    Reply

    November 16th, 2011 at 1:02 pm  

    Oh! Forgot, one more thing that really stuck out to me:

    Prayer.

    (And then reading later about how God answered it). It’s so important.

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