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I was out with my boyfriend David last week when we both got a call from Joseph (because of sensitive information, I’m not using Joseph’s real name). Since we were busy, we let the calls run to voicemail. But then he texted us: “Please call me urgent.”
David and I looked at each other. Knowing who Joseph was and his background, we knew this had to be something serious. So I quickly called him back: “What’s going on, Joseph?”
I had known something was not right with Joseph for some time. He had last texted me that he felt he had “lost his relationship with God,” that he was still “fighting demons from my past”—namely, his lifelong addiction to crack cocaine. So when I called Joseph back, I prayed it wouldn’t be what I suspected. Joseph crushed that hope when he blurted out, “I’ve relapsed.” My soul sank.
I first met Joseph last year at a local homeless committee meeting. He was there to share his testimony, and though he was in a room of mostly non-Christians, he straight-out preached the gospel with his story about how God delivered him from drug addiction, sexual abuse, and homelessness. The moment Joseph stood up and told his story, he had captured my eyes, ears, and heart—everyone else’s too.
This man had lost most of his teeth during decades of drug use. He had a rap sheet of burglaries and robberies, and he had a 50-year-old body that he said had endured multiple rapes during his time in prison. He had calloused feet that once dripped pus from too much walking, and a back that ached from years of sleeping on concrete. But standing in the meeting in front of everyone, Joseph had an authority and charisma that pulled people in.
That night, I knew I had to get to know this extraordinary man, or at least shake his hand. Apparently everyone else had the same idea, because after the committee meeting, people swarmed around him to talk to him. I waited until the crowd dispersed before approaching him.
“Hi, I’m Sophia. I’m a reporter for World Magazine …” I began, reaching out a hand to shake his. Instead, he opened his arms wide and drew me into a snug hug. Joseph is a tall man, so being hugged by him means my feet were dangling by his ankles for a few seconds. He then told me that he’d spotted me earlier from the corner of his eye—and instantly his spirit knew that he had found a fellow sister in Christ. I knew then that journalism was just an excuse—I wanted to be his friend.
Since then, Joseph and I have hung out numerous times. He took me on a walking tour of his old hood, where he used to grovel at the feet of drug dealers, begging for a hit. We’ve had coffee and pancakes at his favorite Denny’s, where I gaped and giggled as he drowned his pancakes in a puddle of syrup. David and I took him out to watch The Fate of the Furious, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Wonder Woman. I still remember his guffaws and thunderlike hand claps as we watched those movies, and the wetness of his brown eyes as he said, “It’s been 20 years since I’ve last been to a movie theater.” Last April, I had celebrated his first sober anniversary by baking him an “extra, extra deep chocolaty-chocolate” cake, as he described it.
Now, a mere two months before his second-year sober anniversary, Joseph had slipped, and he was panicking. “I need help,” he told us on the phone that night. “Can we meet?”
David and I met Joseph the next morning at a coffee shop downtown. We sat outside with our steaming coffees, overlooking a street that Joseph used to prowl, literally singing for crack. We saw many homeless individuals on that street doing the same things that Joseph said he never wanted to do again—and that’s why he was so desperate to meet us.
Ever since his recovery from crack, Joseph had been diving headfirst into plans for the future: He had dreams to minister to the homeless, the addicts, the sexually abused, the convicts. He had envisioned opening a church that never closes its doors, that implants itself in the darkest shadows of the city. He had worked hard to apply to college and earn a degree in Christian ministries. But amid those grandiose plans and the busyness of managing three stores 16 hours a day, Joseph said he forgot to take care of himself.
“Something’s wrong with my heart,” he told us. “I started looking down on other homeless people. I treated them like dogs.” While working at a store in Skid Row, he bashed a homeless man with a hammer for stealing a bag of chips, and choked a woman for spilling sugar on the counter. His own behavior scared him: “I’m filled with so much rage and anger that I am finding it very, very hard to breathe.” He’d seen the relapse coming—and now he was terrified of losing all he had worked so hard for, and terrified of hurting people who love him.
Together, we figured out a rough action plan for Joseph: He had to get out of Los Angeles—he knew too many places and people from whom he could procure drugs. We looked up Christian inpatient rehab programs in the surrounding areas, and came up with a short list of facilities. We told him to find out how much his insurance would pay, and assured him we’d help him financially with the rest. Then we asked what he needed now. Prayers, he said, and cash. His car’s gas tank was low, and he had no money left.
As we walked to my car to get cash, Joseph said, “I think God’s really humbling me. I was getting so proud, thinking I was better than all those other homeless people.”
I sighed and admonished Joseph, “See, that’s exactly what I was worried about! Remember what I told you? That you need to be careful of pride? That you need to surround yourself with a community of fellow believers who will hold you accountable?”
Joseph nodded: “I know, Sophia. But it’s one thing to hear it and say it—it’s another thing to do it. That’s why I think God is humbling me. I need to repent.”
I became quiet. How many times have I said that exact statement myself? Joseph, in his fast ascent from drugs and homelessness, had too easily forgotten where he had come from, and his compassion had turned to contempt for people still stuck in the bog he escaped through the grace of God. It wasn’t so long ago that I, too, was sinking in a pit of despair, helplessness, and shame. How easy it is to forget that we’ve made it this far, not by our own might but God’s grace!
When we reached my car, David and I gave Joseph all the cash we had: $60. As we hugged Joseph goodbye and watched him walk away, I spotted two shifty-eyed men standing at the street corner. So quick that I almost missed it, they exchanged cash and packets of something I suspected was illegal.
David and I looked at each other and wondered if we’d done the right thing. Was it right to give money to a man whose body is salivating over crack? Even if he said all the right things? Should we have marched him to the gas station and made sure he used our money to fill his gas tank? There was little more we could do at that point, so we just prayed that we had done the right thing. And prayed that Joseph would do the right thing.
(To be continued … Read part two here.)