armchair cultural observation since 1995

Article: A Subway Prayer


By Jesse Eubanks

Nine years ago, I was living in Oakland, California with five other Christians in a small apartment on the West Side of the city. We had moved there as part of a nationwide program that was seeking to battle the ills and pains of the inner-city by getting on the front lines.

My neighborhood was made up almost entirely of poor African-Americans. Needless to say, my white team mates and I stood out in our neighborhood. As one man described it, “You all look like six pieces of rice walking around in a raisin bowl.”

On one particular occasion, I had caught the subway across town to meet a friend. Once there, I realized that my friend had not arrived yet. So I leaned against the wall near the subway exit and began to wait.

I quickly took notice of a man outside the exit gate who had the classically stereotypical look of a homeless man – unkempt scraggly beard, dirty clothes, unwashed skin, slightly manic eyes. I actually heard him first before I ever saw him. He was talking loudly to each person that left the station. He was telling jokes – or rather attempting to tell jokes – to each person as they left as an opportunity to panhandle and ask for money. The jokes were bad. They didn’t make sense. They weren’t funny.

He attempted this line of panhandling with each person that left the station. At one point, a group of young teenage girls was about to leave the station. I grew uncomfortable with the possibility of this man “harassing” these young girls, so I decided to step in and save the day.

I exited the station and walked over to the man and began talking with him. He immediately began with his jokes that didn’t make sense. I could smell alcohol on his breath. As he spoke, the young girls slipped by unnoticed. Before he could deliver a second joke, I began looking for my own exit strategy.

Unfortunately for me, just as I tried to walk away my friend arrived. My friend was also a Christian and this meant a terrible thing for me: accountability. I hate accountability! It’s always messing up my plans! I had planned to literally turn around and walk away and now I’ve got to be gentle and loving and… thoughtful. Ughh.

So here my friends arrives, and I’ve got myself stuck in a conversation with an unfunny, unclean, drunk homeless man. So I come up with an idea: What a great opportunity to show my friend how much I can be like Jesus. Jesus likes homeless people right? My friend is going to be so impressed with me.

So I say, “I can’t give you any money but is there anything we can pray for you for?

As the words leave my lips, I’m almost certain my friend is thinking, “You know, Jesse is really amazing. We should name our fellowship hall after him. I wonder if he’d let me write a biography about his life? Didn’t Mother Theresa quote him recently?”

The homeless man stood and looked at me with his slightly manic eyes. He opened his mouth and I expected him to cuss at me for not offering money.

Instead, he began to pour out the deep thoughts of his heart. He told us about how his family wouldn’t talk to him anymore. He told us about living on the streets for the last year. He told us how he had been looking for work but couldn’t find any. And he told us about how he wanted to stop drinking, but couldn’t.

I placed my hand on his shoulder and we bowed our heads and I prayed for him. I prayed for his family, his housing, his work and his drinking. I prayed that Jesus would pour out blessings on him and fill his heart with the undying reality of God’s love. And I said amen.

I reached out to shake his dirty, trash picking hand and told him I would continue to pray for him. My friend and I quickly turned to walk away when he gripped my hand and said, “Wait!”

Frustration and discomfort swept over me as I thought “C’mon man! I’m not giving you any money! I just freakin’ prayed for you. I can’t do anything else!”

I mustered up a gentle smile and I asked, “What is it?”

He looked at me with his slightly glazed over eyes and said, “I haven’t prayed for you yet. What can I pray about for you?”

I was floored. I never anticipated this offer from him.

Like a king dethroned, I faced this man and told him all of the ways in which he could pray for me – about my family, my fears, my money problems and thankfulness. And this man – this man who I was ready to write off from the moment I saw him – this man who I passed mountains of judgment on – this man who I saw as an embarrassment and who had nothing to offer the world – this man who had no material goods and nothing to boast of – this man approached the mighty King of Kings and Creator of the Universe on my behalf and prayed for me.

Who am I to think I’m the only one with something to offer?

Jesse Eubanks is the director of the HOPE for Louisville program at Jefferson Street Baptist Center. For more information, visit www.jeffersonstreet.org. This article was reprinted with permission from the Jefferson Street Baptist Center newsletter.

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