Those who frequent the streets, alleys, parks and hideaways of the homeless often encounter humble missionaries of hope and charity. These are the people who feed, clothe and comfort the lost and forlorn on an endless mission of hope and charity. Almost always, they are people of modest means who embody the true spirit of Christmas all year long in humble acts of ministering to the poor. Many are faith-based; others are not. The things they have in common are their missions of hope and their comprehension of the true nature of grace.
Debra DeLash started delivering warm sleeping bags to homeless people in 2020. To date, she’s delivered over 500.* Her charity now includes other such necessities as socks and hand warmers. On one of her latest missions, she learned of another death on the streets. This is the story of “Tom-Tom” and his friends.
*Debra’s mission is entirely dependent on donations. She has a wish list below this story and here. ed
Death among the Homeless
Late afternoon last Wednesday,”Tom-Tom” passed away on Modesto’s hard ground of homelessness, cold and alone. Eulogies came in the form of testimony from David and Lee, two friends joined with David by indivisible bonds of suffering and redemption.
This is what they told me during my mission to deliver sleeping bags, gloves, socks and hand warmers to the people of our Valley’s cold shadows. This is what they told me and stirred in me.
On this new morning, I park the car for my second stop of deliveries near a patch of asphalt in one of Modesto’s nameless neighborhoods of the poor. About a block away, ten men sit in a circle sharing one of poverty’s most common vices; right now, they don’t need what I have to offer.
Around the corner, an old man named David is picking up trash and cans. He needs a sleeping bag, so I offer him some hand warmers and gloves and ask him to meet me back at my car.
Once there, David begins to talk. David is a veteran, a former “airman” on the Midway, and comes alive while sharing his history. I notice his hands and wrists are covered with terrible-looking sores. I offer one of two donated boxes that say, “For Veterans Only,” which I had recently received. As David opens the package, he is thrilled to see cleansers, salves, and disinfectant wipes for his acute maladies. He looks over at a patch of asphalt, and I notice a single soda can on the ground where David fixates.
“A man died right there yesterday. I knew him and we would talk.”
“What? I mean…huh?” I can see the pain David holds in, and want to say the right thing.
Running through my mind is the plight of Biblical Job, and how his friend Eliphaz, came to him in Job’s gruesome trials and ended up making things worse. Eliphaz started well enough by traveling with Job, and for a time stayed close, saying nothing. Then in Eliphaz’s confusion and desire to understand, he misinterpreted Job’s earthly tragedies.
Right now, as I stand in front of clearly hurting David, I remind myself to say very little; not to pour platitudes on this acute painful moment. No words can touch this.
David says, “Tom Tom was so thin; skin and bones, I thought he would have died sooner. He got weaker and weaker.”
I am wondering how long Tom-Tom had to suffer. Did he just lie there in the cold, dying?
David goes on,
“I saw him huddled over there. I went and tried to talk; his voice was very low, but he wasn’t cold. The sun was shining on him. I left to go to the corner church, and get food; they feed me and give me a blanket. I was gone for a couple of hours. As I walked back here, I see cop cars at Tom-Tom’s place. He was gone. He was wearing only one shoe and lying on a piece of plastic, I couldn’t believe it happens just like this.”
I glance over at the soda can lying there, and back to the look on David’s face. I ask how long they had been pals..
David explains that Tom Tom had been homeless for a few years and that he struggled with trust issues. Yet he would talk to David and I see why. David has a kind spirit; he even invites me to go to the church that helps him. I imagine the last words Tom-Tom heard on this earth were from David, and I believe this to be a blessing, despite a very sad physical death. His last messages heard would have been of warmth and friendship. When the police arrived, Tom-Tom had already passed.
Stirrings of the Human Heart
“The light is everywhere; even in the darkness. For the light created everything and will never go out. And God’s Kingdom will be filled with those of the light.”
A tiny light stirs in our hearts as David speaks. It is a tiny beacon that refuses to give in to the darkness. It is that light that helps David keep moving forward in his life on the streets and enables him to share stories of his friend. God turns on this light, and it is embedded deep in all of us, if we can only see it; it is there we find the wakening of the human heart.
Pulling out from behind this strip mall, a block or so off, I see a young man sitting beside a dumpster. He is clearly in distress; his face is down almost upon his lap. When I greet him, he looks up, and I see he is weeping. He has only a blue blanket and a backpack.
“Do you need a warm sleeping bag?”
This stranger starts talking immediately. None of what he says is about himself.
“Look!” and he points around the corner towards the strip mall. We both turn in that direction. “My friend died right over there yesterday.” My heart starts beating faster and I ask,
“Do you mind if I ask your name? And the name of your friend?”
This is Lee, Tom-Tom’s second eulogist. I can see the stirrings of his heart with that spark of light that connects two people. Today, instead of the usual blindness, there is true sight. Earlier, when I passed by the group of men who were captured by the darkness I went on and went into the light. I kept moving forward and found David, and now I have found Lee, who says,
“It was Tom-Tom.”
At this point, I am trying hard not to speak; to impact this sacred spot of time, which belongs now to the young man sitting on the curb.
Lee continues talking about how Tom-Tom had a bad virus and Lee watched him worsen day by day. It got so bad with the mucous and his breathing, that Tom-Tom’s voice lowered to a whisper at the end.
Lee’s grief is acute and palpable. I look down and wait. After a time, Lee raises his eyes, still tearing, and finishes,
“Today, I miss him already. I already miss him.”
No finer eulogy could have been recorded about this lone but not friendless man who died in the street.
The Road Goes On
David had told me about a wheelchair-bound woman, perhaps 75, who lives on the sidewalk, not far from Lee. He said she needs a warm sleeping bag. I go back to the car and drive further down the road.
Off to the side, there is a repair shop with two men working on a car. I spot the wheelchair, behind the second dumpster I’ve seen today. There I meet “Lydia.” As David said, she is old, weather-worn, and sitting in a wheelchair with her head sticking out of a flimsy fleece blanket.
Down a nearby street, there are 5 or 6 women and men who have set up makeshift shelters from tarps and a couple of smaller tents.
Lydia is a beautiful soul. Her voice is faint and I am straining to catch everything. Lydia has been out here for years; she has no family available to help. Yet you know what she tells me?
This is where the breathtaking part of “Stirrings of the Heart” enters. She is freezing, hungry (as I find out later), and relies on nearby strangers for basic help (also I find out later), She appears to be nearing 80 years old, and as I look around her patch of life here, the words, “hell on earth” come to mind. Lydia whispers,
“I know that God has a plan for me.”
I look around in in 360 circle; every inch of Lydia’s cramped space is cluttered and noisy; it is bitter cold, and Lydia can’t move around without help. It is fragile and minute by minute, this stark existence, yet we talk about Lydia’s faith and share stories about life. We use few words but speak volumes. God’s power is eternal and creative; it’s true that this life is not fair, and yet there will be justice, if not in this world, then later. I think from what Lydia tells me, that she may agree.
Oh dear Lord have mercy! Yes, this is a spark of light in the darkness!
So in this short day, there are too many stories to tell and yet more stirrings that awaken the heart.
As I leave Lydia’s place, I stop to speak to a younger woman, the one who has the tent nearby. It turns out she brought Lydia into her little space last night to sleep: Valley temperatures have reached the low 30s at night. I have never felt such a strong revelation of true charity, until this moment.
I look over at the tent; it is small, and it must have been cramped; this act is where the light is, the spark of light in the darkness: Charity even when it brings hardship.
“Whilst you have the light, believe in the light, that you may be the children of light.” (John 12:36)
The stirrings of God are everywhere this morning. Then I remember that as I backed out of my space earlier, a truck was parked close nearby. What was written on the truck? “Faithful Paving.”
Yes, it said “Faithful Paving” and the “t” was in the shape of a cross. I saw this truck parked across from Tom-Tom’s place earlier. They may be replacing the asphalt patch which was his final resting place.
The next stop is McDonald’s for coffee. My car is pretty much empty from the day’s rounds and a man is sitting outside the entrance. A recent sock donation included extra thick socks, almost up to the knee. I have one pair left.
“Do you want socks?” The man accepts, sits down, and immediately lifts the legs of his pants to reveal wet, extremely dirty socks; he quickly rolls them off. He works at lightning speed to put on the new socks as I back away. Having given out practically my whole carload, I am by now driving out of town. I pass by the road I had started on earlier this morning.
Follow the Light
I see David again. But this time he is not alone. There is a hunched-over young man beside him. His neck is bent forward at an extreme angle, so that he’s only able to look at the ground, not side to side. I watch as David rests his arm on this man’s shoulder and guides him down the street. It is near mealtime and there is a church-run food truck at a nearby park. They may be heading there. The sun is coming out this afternoon. It did yesterday, when Tom-Tom passed away.
It is easy to say we believe in God and will follow Him when things are not too hard. But will faith hold during bitter circumstances? The story of Job tells us faith must hold, especially when put to the test. This day, the stirrings of faith and charity in the hearts of David, Lee, and Lydia, are, to me, that small voice of God beckoning, telling us to keep trudging forward toward the light of hope. There is a message for all of us written in the words and kindness by people of the shadows.
So I pray, dear Lord, as I accept your call of love and mercy; please grant our brother Tom-Tom kind admittance into Your Heavenly Kingdom. I pray Tom-Tom, and others both who I have lost in this world, and those sleeping out in the cold tonight, know the warmth of Your eternal embrace.
And may I grow to contain even a portion of the charity of that woman who takes Lydia into her tent. May the people You have placed upon our earthly paths find warmth and friendship and stay by our side Lord through the end. Amen.
A Song of Degrees. I lifted up mine eyes to the mountains, whence my help shall come. Amen. (Psalm 121:1)
For the past two winters, you, my friends, have helped to provide over 500 warm sleeping bags to the homeless in the Central Valley. I started out visiting smaller communities in four counties: Merced, Stanislaus, Contra Costa, and San Joaquin. I mostly head to places where there are no/few shelters and limited services. I distribute one on one, in outlying areas: searching under bushes, strip malls, parks, alleys, and covered bus stops, under freeways, yet also have visited the camps. Last year I added hygiene bags, food items, gloves, hats, bibles, etc. Recognizing how hard this life is, my prayer is that at least during our short interactions, the person receiving the sleeping bag knows he is not alone. If they need to talk, we do; I know I am lacking and must partner with God; then we face the pain encountered together. I have a wish list here.