A red heart catches my eye. Amid the bustle of the city—the buses and bicycles and business people whizzing by, the smell of coffee beans wafting from the nearby Starbucks, and the street people trying to accost me for a few dollars—a tiny, hand-drawn heart stands out. The heart is a portion of a small cardboard sign, probably made from the inside of a pizza box. It reads: You don’t have to give us money. We ♥ breakfast too.
On second glance, the sign’s apparent creator is resting against a No Parking sign—two overflowing, tattered bags, and an upside-down baseball cap holding a meager “Toonie” (that’s a two-dollar coin for you folks south of the border) slightly closing him off from the world. I don’t really want to stop. I’m eager to take the next bus and start seeing shows at the theater festival I’m volunteering for. Even so, I find myself turning around and approaching the man.
“Have you had breakfast?” I ask lamely. Obviously he hasn’t had breakfast; the sign clearly states that.
“No, not yet,” he confirms.
“Well—what do you want? I can grab you something.” I indicate the Starbucks sitting beside us.
“Anything would be great.” He’s looking up at me now so I have a chance to notice his features. The man has a fair, worn complexion. He is balding in front, yet his strawberry-blond hair hangs long in the back. But the thing I notice the most are his eyes—blue-green in color, they sparkle.
“Well, what do you like from Starbucks?”
“I—I don’t know. I don’t get to go inside much,” he shrugs honestly.
Slightly embarrassed at my ignorance, I run inside and purchase two large coffees and one bacon and egg breakfast sandwich. As I set the coffee down and hand him the bagged sandwich, I notice the attractive pizza box sign has disappeared. The man thanks me profusely and I respond awkwardly. He opens the little sugar packets and begins to pour them into the steaming paper cup. I look down at my own coffee, already doctored up the way I like it with just a little bit of cream. I ought to be going, but my legs suddenly lock me in place.
The man is asking for my name now.
“Elizabeth,” I respond, crouching slowly as I try to balance both my coffee and heavy backpack to extend my hand politely.
“I’m Jack,” he says, taking my hand briefly, his ever-present smile evident in his voice.
“Nice to meet you,” I offer genuinely, now trying to make my way back to my feet. But before I can do so, William Shakespeare’s face catches my eye. It’s engraved beautifully onto a brown book with a leather-like cover. “What are you reading?”
Jack tells me eagerly that the book is a journal, and he explains how excited he was to find it in an alley dumpster. “It’s always great to find treasures like that,” he continues. “All I really need is a sleeping bag and a good book.” I smile in agreement, depositing my backpack to the ground and seating myself in a more comfortable position.
Jack begins to talk easily now, and I listen as if he were an old friend. He speaks of a life of trial and adventure sprinkled with drugs, violence, and sorrow. It all began in a desperate home with an abusive father and an absent mother that he left at 13. Although he left school at the same time, Jack is well spoken, versed in poetry, art, science, and politics. His stories reveal he’s in his 30s, but he looks 10 years older.
He mentions God now and again but claims no allegiance to the Christian faith.
We chat companionably about theater. He wanted to be an actor, and I’m trying to be a professional theater artist. He tells me he’s been published, but warns that doesn’t make one a great writer. I tell him about the theater festival I’m volunteering for and offer the glossy Fringe guide full of publicity pictures and show times. He flips through it ravenously, and I sense a hunger that even a breakfast sandwich will not cure. We are one and the same, Jack and me, even as we are seemingly separated by age, experience, lifestyle, and income. Sitting beside my new friend on a Vancouver sidewalk, I take in this beautiful moment with a deep breath and a prayer.
“I’m a Christian, and I believe God has a hand in everything I do. Meeting you is really inspiring and I know God meant for it to happen. When I saw your sign with the heart, I had to stop—and now I know why.”
Something changes in Jack now. The sparkle in his eyes explodes. There’s a brilliant light in his face that wasn’t there before.
“You know, I can always sense when people are going to stop to give me money or buy me food as you have done. Thank you again. And I always trust somehow that I’ll be fed.” He pauses briefly and looks off into the busy, oncoming traffic before continuing. “I—I’m Christian, too. My family was Irish Catholic, but I don’t call myself that. I never tell anyone I’m a Christian.” He looks down at his tattered shoes and takes a sip of his now-lukewarm coffee. “I believe in God. But I can’t tell anyone I know. I can’t even talk to them the way we have today. They don’t get it, the people I know.”
We stay for three hours, sipping coffee till our cups run dry on a dusty sidewalk, two strangers with similar souls.
Physical hunger is serious, and I will always buy food for those who ask because no one deserves to be hungry. But the truth is that our hearts cry out just as much as our bellies do. Jesus says that he is the bread of life. “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Several centuries later, St. Teresa of Avila reminded the world that Christ has no body on earth but ours. We are to be his tangible acts of compassion—his earthly hands, feet, eyes, and body.
For months I’ve tried to make sense of this unexpected encounter, but I simply can’t. I don’t believe it’s meant to be made sense of after all. I stopped to help a fellow human being, and he inspired me. I tried to fill a stranger’s belly, and he filled my heart. I meant to shine the light of Christ and only found it flashing back at me. I only hope I gave Jack half as much as he gave me.