Don't Cling Too Tightly
As I was working at my first significant job after college, something happened that changed the course of my life and my understanding about personal and spiritual development. I was working under a contract for the New York State Department of Economic Development, analyzing New York’s export strategy and assisting the business headquartered in the state. This was during the late 80s and early 90s, and New York State had some of the largest export traffic in the world through companies like IBM, Kodak, Xerox, and others. New York’s proximity to Canada and large port system made the state one of the busiest in worldwide export traffic. Our central office was in Manhattan, and I would make trips there from my home near Buffalo. I learned so much during these years; I was analyzing around 100 businesses a year, many by traveling to each site to perform the analysis. The training and experience I received has become the foundation for my entrepreneurial career.
The more I met with and analyzed successful companies, the more I was eager to develop my own.
During those years, I became acquainted with a ministry that had a homeless outreach in Times Square, Manhattan. In the late 80s and early 90s, Times Square was a sordid place. It was before the big cleanup that Mayor Giuliani initiated, and Times Square had a great deal of drug trafficking, homeless population, prostitution, and crime. A group of friends introduced me to the ministry and its goal of helping some of the most desperate and marginalized people in the area to find sobriety, hope, and a path to a healthy lifestyle.
The ministry organization leased an upper floor of a series of buildings directly across from the Port Authority bus station in Midtown, Manhattan, placing them near the heart of Times Square in an area known as Hell’s Kitchen. After my 9-to-5 work was done in the city, I would volunteer. Assisting mostly in the evenings and on the weekend, I always felt a very rewarding and enriched sense of purpose. My volunteer assignment was to walk through the area and personally invite homeless people, drug addicts, and the like to come to an evening meeting where there would be coffee, a hot meal, and some straight talk about getting out of addiction, prostitution, and drug abuse. My assignment was an important part of the process, because the community we were trying to affect would only learn about meetings and social programs through word of mouth. Each night at these meetings, we had speakers who were once prostitutes or drug addicts come and give their powerful testimonials—they spoke about how they were ordinary people who had tried everything to live a purposeful life but could not break their addictive and destructive lifestyles before they had an encounter with God. This was the most important and effective strategy in reaching this group. These desperate, marginalized people would hear the firsthand stories of overcoming addiction and breaking through enormous obstacles, and it gave hope and direction like nothing else. After they shared, there would often be numerous people emotionally impacted who wanted to know how to make the steps necessary for change.
As I look back at these meetings, they were probably best described as a hybrid of a soup kitchen, an AA meeting, and a church service. Their effectiveness was tremendous. They consistently had testimonies of sustained recovery and long-lasting impact that reached numbers many times that of government-run facilities.
One hot July summer night, I was combing through a community of homeless people who had taken refuge under one of the large overpasses that made up the bus terminal. There were cardboard boxes made into little shelters, bags of garbage and piles of clothes that obviously belonged to the inhabitants of the shelters, and scattered throughout this landscape were hundreds of homeless men and women. I remember clearly to this day striking up a conversation with a homeless man whose name was Richard; he was about ten years older than me, in his late 30s or early 40s, and had been homeless on the streets of Midtown for many years. I had spoken with dozens of individuals that night already, but there was something about our conversation that seemed to connect more than the others. From where we stood, I could point to the building where our meetings and the food distribution would soon start. I asked him, to come and check it out. I told him that I would wait and take a seat by the door so I could help him find his way inside. After a bit of reluctance, he told me that he would be there.
That night, as I waited by the door, a stream of some of the most broken, sick, and addicted people I’d ever seen in my life brushed past me on their way in to have a hot meal, a cup of coffee, and hear that evening’s speaker. The heat wave that had been going through New York made the stench from the city streets, and many of the people coming in, almost unbearable. The mass of desperate people coming in were from all ages and walks of life. I saw young prostitutes that were jaundiced and yellow with hepatitis and elderly homeless people that were destitute. As I watched the people coming through the door, I wondered how long they could live in their present condition.
I half expected that Richard wouldn’t make it. But you can imagine how delighted I was when I saw him coming up the stairs. The thing that struck me first was the size and thickness of the coat that he was wearing. It reminded me of something you would wear in a winter blizzard, not a sweltering summer night. He also clutched a clear plastic bag under his coat that seem to be about the size of a large bed pillow.
I greeted Richard, and he seemed genuinely happy to see me. We came inside, and I helped him find a seat. I took the seat next to him and talked to him about the length of the service and how to get a meal afterwards. Once he was seated, I went to get him a cup of coffee and came back just in time to hear the evening speaker begin. It was very hot in that upper room, and I asked Richard if I could take his coat and hang it up. Immediately, I saw the fear flash in his eyes. I realized that his coat and the bag that he was carrying contained all the valuables in his life. When he had agreed to leave his cardboard box to join me, he had to take anything of perceived value with him so that it wouldn’t be stolen during his absence. He took his coat off and set it on the chair between us and kept his hand tight on the plastic bag as he set that between us as well.
The man who started to speak was a former heroin addict from that part of Manhattan who had turned his life around and was telling his story and the keys to his recovery. At different points, he would make reference to a Bible passage. At one point, I noticed Richard looking around at people thumbing through Bibles with an inquisitive look. In response, I opened the Bible that I had to the scripture the speaker was referring to and began to pass it towards Richard. As I did, my hands brushed over the top of his plastic bag that he held tightly between us. When he noticed me reaching toward him, he wrenched back and pulled the bag toward him tightly. I was shocked. At first I didn’t understand, but then it became clear he saw my movement as a potential threat of theft of his bag. I tried to assure him that wasn’t the case and made another attempt at passing him my Bible. This was too much. He wrenched back again, pulled his possessions to the other side of his body so it was no longer next to me, and he completely shut down any further communication with me. I was stunned. I could see the entire contents through the clear grimy bag. It contained a few empty cans he was going to turn in for deposit money, some very dirty clothes, and what looked like less than a dollar in change.
This situation was so disconcerting for me. I thought to myself, “God, this man is missing an opportunity to radically transform his life. He’s missing the ability for the first time to see a Bible and its contents. He is so distracted that he is also missing any instructions on how to get further help from this organization.” Richard’s eyes were wild and frantic. When there was a break in the meeting, he snatched up his bag and coat and headed for the door.
I was heartbroken. It felt to me that this may be one of his last chances for change and a better life. He was so close to help, but the contents of his bag, which contained nothing of value that you and I would ever want, was the sole obstacle keeping him from a life of sanity, sobriety, and fulfillment.
I pondered this deeply and emotionally. In the next moment, something happened that is still, to this day, very emotional and difficult to explain. In a word, I felt an overwhelming sense of the presence of God. It was surprising and unexpected. The words that I heard were not audible, but profoundly clear.
“Son, in your life you will also have possessions—houses, cars, bank accounts, and many things that will be precious from your perspective. But never think that they are any different or more valuable than those rags in Richard’s bag. If they keep you from hearing and fulfilling My direction for your life, they are worthless.”
From that moment on, my view of living a fulfilling life was transformed. I understood with clarity these words of Jesus Christ, “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul” (Matthew 16:26)
I was conscious that my possessions, and the self-focus they could bring, could hold me back from a truly fulfilling life. Small-minded, temporal values can distract us from rasping meaningful and fulfilling sights and direction. I have never forgotten that look on Richard’s face hen he clutched his bag of belongings and could not leave it behind to find a better life. If I find myself holding my own businesses or profits a little too lose, I think back to that moment and I remind myself that my possessions will never hold me back from living a God-directed fulfilling life.