Whishhh! If David hadn’t leaned to the left, the stone would have hit him in the head. In a moment another rock hit the target and David reeled with pain. It was only a matter of time before the boys in the gang sent him to the hospital – or worse. All David knew to do was run. He had been running all of his life and could he ever run. Some day he hoped to run far away from Alabama, far away from everyone he knew.
The bullies were losing ground, but David could still hear their insults and threats. “Dummy, Dummy, Dummy!” they shouted. “We’ll get you, Dummy!” They often did, and David had the scars for proof. Not this time, David said to himself as he rounded the corner to a gas station. For a few seconds he was out of sight from the gang. He quickly chose his hiding place and crouched down behind a pile of tires. He held his breath and waited until the boys ran on by. With his energy spent, he could not face turning around and going back home. The gang would just be after him tomorrow and the next day and the next ...
Just then a truck loaded with Christmas trees pulled up to a gas pump. Two men got out and both headed inside. One of the men stopped at the counter to prepay for the gas and the other one went to the restroom. Only one other car was on the lot and the driver was about to pull away. What if? ...Could he? ... Adrenaline began to race through his veins as he considered the possibility of undertaking a new kind of adventure.
On sudden impulse, David walked to the back of the truck. Looking around to see no one in sight, he crawled into the truck and hid his body among the Christmas trees. The pine needles scratched his skin and it was hard to breathe in the confined space. David’s heart began to race and he wondered if he had made a terrible mistake. Would life on the run be even worse than life at home?
For only a few seconds David considered jumping out of the truck and heading home. When the two men returned to the truck, that option closed. “Man, it’s cold here,” one of the men said as he dipped the squeegee into a solution and cleaned the windshield. When the other man brought the hose back to the gas tank, David was only a few feet away. He feared the beating of his heart might make his presence known. Fortunately, the sloshing of the gas into the tank muffled the sound.
The man pumping gas said, “Yeah, it’s cold here, but cheer up. We should be in Florida day after tomorrow. Then we’ll head back home with money for Christmas presents.”
Realizing he would not spend Christmas with his parents this year caused a strange emotion to stir in David’s heart. On one hand, he would miss spending the time with his parents. He loved them and he knew they loved him. They always found a way to give their only child a nice but inexpensive present, but they always apologized because they wanted to give him so much more. That made David sad because he knew how hard they worked to provide for him.
By Christmas this year, his parents would realize that David would not be home. Dad would not have to work long hours at the factory to make up for time off without pay during the week of Christmas. Mom would not have to decorate the house and bake cookies after a late shift at the cleaners. Mom and Dad will be better off without me, he thought.
Realization that he might never again see his parents brought tears to David’s eyes. How he would miss Mom’s hugs and Dad’s kind words! There was no one else to show him love. But even they did not understand how much it hurt to take the abuse from the kids at school or in the neighborhood. The older David got, the harder it was to deal with his learning disabilities.
In a terrible moment years ago, David learned that he was different from other children. Something was very wrong with his brain. Mom and Dad had taken David to the doctor. After examining David, the doctor asked the nine-year-old to join Aunt Katherine in the waiting room. By sitting close to the door, David was able to hear the conversation.
“I’m sorry to give you bad news,” the doctor had said.
“David’s brain has not developed normally. His mental capacity will always be years behind that of other children his age. He will always be slow.”
“Will he catch up?” Mom asked.
David had listened intently, but all was silent on the other side of the door. Finally, the doctor cleared his throat and spoke. “No. In fact, he will likely fall farther behind as he gets older.”
Even at an early age, Mom’s sobbing brought sorrow to David’s heart. He knew he was the source of her pain and there was nothing he could do about it.
“What should we do?” Dad had asked.
“There are places where ...” The doctor cleared his throat again. “There are places where children with mental disabilities can be cared for by people who understand their condition.”
“No! No!” Mom said emphatically. “My child won’t be raised in an institution. We’ll care for him ourselves.”
“In that case, you’ll just have to take each day as it comes. I’m really sorry,” the doctor had said.
Much of the conversation was above David’s level of comprehension, but he fully understood that he was different and that he was a problem to his parents.
From David’s first year in school, the other kids ignored him; so David kept to himself. With no friends, he felt very much alone and out of place. At the beginning of every school year, the teasing started, especially when David had to repeat a grade.
At age twenty, David was the oldest student in the senior class. It was his second year as a senior, but David did not expect to graduate. His parents kept him in school because they didn’t know what else to do with him.
“I don’t want to go to school any more,” he had often told his parents. “The teacher knows I’m dumb and the kids pick on me.”
Mom always bowed her head and closed her eyes tight. David thought she did that to keep from crying. Dad had to keep David appraised of their decision. “I’m sorry, David, but your mother and I have discussed all the options. We believe it’s better for you to remain in school for a while longer.”
“How much longer?” David always asked.
“At this point we can’t say but we want you to know that we’re putting your interests above everything else.” David believed that his parents thought they were doing the best for him but they didn’t understand the pain that he endured each day.
It seemed that memory of all the major events of David’s life were compressed into the first few moments of his new adventure. From now on, that life would be a mere memory as he went on to ... to what? Where would he sleep? How would he eat? What could he do with his time? Those were scary questions without answers but they also promised a bit of excitement. Whatever the future held, it would be better than the past.
The pine needles continued to prick David’s skin. When he touched a sore spot on his forehead, blood oozed onto his fingers. With no handkerchief or Kleenex on hand, he pulled the back of his shirttail around in front to wipe his fingers. Under his jacket, the stain wouldn’t show.
The truck had been moving slowly with frequent stops through city traffic. As soon as their speed increased on the expressway, the wind picked up and David shivered in the cold. He tried to put more trees closer to him to block the wind but his strength was no match for the heavy trees. The best he could do to try to keep warm was to curl up into a little ball, close his eyes, and hope to sleep. Unable to put his mind to rest, David began to muse about a recurring dream he had at home. In the dream, David was running far, far away. Now he was living that dream.
David knew that it would soon be dark. He needed to get out of the truck but, first, he had to make plans. When would the time be right? Had he gone far enough away from home so that the bullies could not find him? They had driven several hours. Surely he would now be safe.
Of course he worried about what would happen if the truck drivers caught him. They might call the police and he would end up in jail. That was an experience he hoped to avoid forever. With that possibility of trouble with the law in mind, he needed to make his exit with the utmost caution.
A few miles later, the truck exited the highway and pulled into a gas station. Was this the time to make his break? With an increasing need to go to the restroom, David decided to take his chances. Still, he wanted to be cautious. He edged his way out of the branches of the pine trees. Then he would be ready to jump as soon as the truck stopped. Maybe he could make his getaway before the men got out of the truck. If they saw him, he would run. With so much practice in running, he was sure he could outrun them with no problem.
Excitement ... or was it fear? In any event, his pulse raced and his body trembled as he prepared to make a fast exit.
David’s feet hit the pavement even before the driver turned off the ignition. In the restroom, he locked the door and struggled to catch his breath. One look in the mirror, as well as a stinging sensation on his face, told him the pine needles had not been kind to him as he disturbed the branches. He wet a paper towel and wiped his face. The sap from the trees was not easily removed but he rubbed until his skin turned red.
When someone tried the door, David’s heart began to race again. The men would both want a turn in the restroom before they traveled on. If they hadn’t seen him, of course, they would think he was just another traveler from one of the other cars. The thought somewhat relieved his fears but, nevertheless, he wanted to take no chances. As soon as he could no longer hear footsteps, he quickly left the restroom and hid behind the dumpster in back of the gas station. In response to the growl of his stomach, David opened the dumpster to look for food. Nothing but a bunch of empty boxes and paper. The hard facts of life “on his own” began to sink in. If he could find no food, how could he survive?
After the truck loaded with Christmas trees pulled away, David walked a short distance to a restaurant. Surely he could find food in the trash can there. Everything was wrapped in plastic bags. David opened one of the bags but the odor of the mess inside turned his stomach. Searching through several other bags brought him nothing but a stale roll. This part of his adventure was not to his liking. Now what? David wondered. Aimlessly, he started to walk. Where to? He had no idea. He didn’t even know where he was except that he was far from home. That had been his goal for a long time. One thing for sure, he was in a busier place than he had ever been before. He had to dodge many cars as he made his way through traffic.
The events of the day had brought weariness to David’s body. It would be great if he could just sit down and rest but there were no benches along the streets as there had been in his hometown. Even if there had been a place to sit down, though, it would be too cold to relax. Maybe everyone was moving so fast to keep warm. There were people all around him, but they went on their way and paid no attention to David. That was the way he liked it.
Actually, most of the people he saw were very much like David. They looked like they had been having a hard life too. Their clothes were dirty and worn. Perhaps many of them had learning disabilities too. At last David might find a place where he could fit in - a place where no one would abuse him or make fun of him.
If he had wanted peace and quiet, though, David had come to the wrong place. The roar of traffic, the sound of automobile horns, police and ambulance sirens pierced the air. David decided he would get used to the noise and the bustle of activity would keep him from getting bored. He would grow to appreciate his new lifestyle.
As darkness descended, David wondered where he would find a place to sleep for the night and how would he fill his empty stomach? How much of a price would he have to pay for his freedom? Whatever, David decided; freedom would be worth the price.
Everyone seemed to be in a hurry. Several men in a group seemed to know where they were going and David began to keep pace with them. He stayed a short distance behind because he didn’t want to intrude on their space. Long ago he had learned the hard way that it was safer to stay out of the way of others.
When the men turned the corner, David followed. One of the men turned around to face him. Oh boy, here comes trouble, David thought.
“Are you going to the meeting?” the man asked.
“Uh ...uh,” David stammered with fear. The friendly face, although dirty and unshaven, put him somewhat at ease. “Yeah, sure,” he said. Might as well find out what it’s all about, he thought. After all, he was on an adventure.
“I haven’t seen you around before.”
“I just got here.” To David’s relief, the stranger merely nodded without further comment. It would be hard to explain what he was doing when he didn’t even know where he was.
When they turned another corner, David’s mouth flew open and his eyes grew wide as he witnessed the scene ahead. A parking lot was set up with chairs all in rows like a school room. Unpleasant memories flooded his mind. Should he run while he could? he wondered. Even as the thought entered his mind, he dismissed it. The last thing he wanted to do was make a scene.
A pleasant looking man with sparkling eyes extended his hand to David. “Welcome to Church On The Street. I’m Don,” he said.
The word welcome eased David’s anxiety. “Thank you,” he said.
So this is a church? Now he noticed the trailer up front with the sign painted on the side. At first he couldn’t make out the words but it took him only a short time to figure them out: Church On The Street. Church had never been part of David’s life. There were a few churches in the small town in Alabama, but David had never attended one. He always wondered what church was all about. Now he was about to find out.
People kept coming until nearly all the seats were filled. A man stood up front, asked everyone to stand, bowed his head, and began talking to God as though God was listening. These people’s minds are worse off than mine, he thought. Looking around at the crowd, he was surprised to find that everyone’s head was bowed. People’s lips were moving as though they were joining in with the leader. Actually, the strange behavior made David feel at home. He should fit right in here.
After the man said, “Amen,” everyone sat down.
A woman stepped forward and announced they would sing. Not everyone sang the words together, but some people certainly seemed happy. Sometimes they stood while singing and sometimes they remained seated. David followed along with what everyone else did.
After they sang for a long time, Don got up and said he would read from the Bible. David didn’t know anything about the Bible either, but he listened as Don read, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NIV).
Only two words stood out in David’s mind: God loved. He didn’t understand the rest of the words but he knew about love, although he never experienced it except from Mom and Dad. No one else loved him. At best they put up with him; at worst they abused him. David knew God only as the Big Guy in the sky.
“Put your name in the verse instead of the world,” Don said. “God loved John, God loved Jessica, God loved Andrew ... or Paul ... or Jim.” He paused to allow the concept to sink in. “How does it feel to know that God loves you?”
Awesome! David thought. That was a word he learned from school. Especially to the younger kids, anything that seemed the least bit unusual was awesome. With that definition, though, the concept that God loved him needed a stronger word. But David didn’t know of a stronger word; so awesome would have to do.
Don kept on talking ... and talking ... and talking. It would have been hard for David to sit still so long if he hadn’t kept hearing over and over again that God loved him. Maybe God’s love could take over in his life where his parents’ love left off.
When Don finished, he came back to again shake David’s hand. “Hi, what is your name?” “David,” he replied as he shook Don’s hand.
“You’ll stay and eat with us, won’t you, David?”
The eating part got David’s full approval. A grin spread across his face as he said, “Yeah. Man, I’m hungry.”
“All right! You came to the right place.”
A quizzical expression crossed David’s face. “Where am I?”
Don placed his hand on David’s shoulder. “You’re at Church On The Street.”
“I know that, but I don’t know where we are.”
“Do you know you’re in Atlanta?”
“No.... Is Atlanta in Alabama?”
“No, Atlanta is in Georgia.”
David had never heard of Atlanta or Georgia. “Is Georgia a different country?”
“No, Georgia is a state right next to Alabama.”
“I see.” It felt good to ask questions and not be told how dumb he was. David had the feeling he was going to like it here.
People were lined up and going behind the trailer. They received a plate filled with two hot dogs and a big bowl of chili and beans. David could hardly wait to get his hands on a plate like that. So many people were ahead of him that David began to worry they might run out of food before he had his turn. Anxiety continued to build until he got close to the trailer and saw mounds of food - enough to feed twice this crowd.
With his plate full, David sat down in a seat near the front to enjoy his meal. He was so hungry he stuffed nearly half a hotdog in his mouth at once. After that, he took smaller bites because he wanted to make the delicious taste last as long as possible.
David had finished eating and was wondering what would happen next when a woman came up to him with a nice looking jacket. “It looks like you need a warmer winter jacket,” she said as she extended the jacket to David. “See if this fits.”
With his eyes dancing, David started to try the jacket on over the one he wore but he couldn’t get his left arm in the sleeve. He kept trying to maneuver his arm through the sleeve.
“I think it will work better if you take off the other one,” the woman said with a smile.
The jacket was a perfect fit for his large body. David handed his old jacket back to the lady.
“You may keep both jackets,” she said. “You’ll need the light one when it’s warmer.” When David awkwardly fidgeted with the jacket, the woman said, “Let me get you a backpack where you can keep your personal things.” She went into the trailer and returned with a brand new back pack, which she handed to David.
“Thank you,” he said. Wow! I’m not going to miss Christmas after all, David thought. This is better than I would get at home. With no where else to go, David hung around until nearly everyone else had gone. He still had a problem–a big problem. Where was he going to sleep?
Don asked the question that was on David’s mind. “Where are you staying tonight?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t have a place to stay?”
Hanging his head, David said, “No.” He felt ashamed that he was unable to take care of himself.
“That’s okay. We’re here to help.” David could tell that Don really cared about him. He cared about everyone.
“There’s a homeless shelter not far from here. You can stay there,” Don said. He called to another man and asked him to take David to the shelter.
As David started to leave with the other man, Don said, “We’ll look forward to seeing you again – maybe next week.”
Apparently the church didn’t feed people every day in that parking lot. On the way to the shelter, David learned from his companion that Church On The Street had a church service and provided a meal to the homeless somewhere in the city every night. You would just have to learn the different places where they serve and when. This was the regular spot for Thursday night.
“In time you’ll learn the ways of the street. I’ll show you what I can.” As they walked, David’s new friend pointed out a restaurant where they could often find some decent food in the trash can. In a mall they could hang out and keep warm as long as they kept moving. His adventure would continue as he learned how to survive, David decided.
Even as tired as he was, David had trouble going to sleep at the shelter with so many bodies lying close to him. Would someone hurt him during the night while he was asleep? Would someone steal his new jacket? Many thoughts disturbed him until he finally drifted off into troubled sleep.
In his dream David was home. Mom was standing by the door crying, “Where is he? Where is he?” Over and over she repeated the agonizing cry.
Dad stood by her side and tried to comfort her. “He’ll be back.” he whispered. “He’ll be back.” Mom buried her face on Dad’s shoulder and continued to sob.
David opened his mouth to speak but no words came out. He wanted to go to Mom and tell her he was okay, but he couldn’t move. It was as though he was trapped in an invisible body. Then he began to float through the air until he woke up sobbing.
“Hey, cut it,” the guy in the next bed yelled.
When fully awake, David muffled his sobs and said, “Sorry. Bad dream.” The rest of the night he hovered between sleep and consciousness. At times he longed for a hug from Mom but his arms remained empty. He was glad when morning came.
A cup of hot coffee was a good start for the day, but one of Mom’s warm cinnamon rolls sure would taste good. Every time his stomach called for food, David reminded himself that he had had a good meal last night. Many of the men were already leaving as though they had some place to go. David hoped that someone would invite him to go along, but no one did.
When he could no longer remain in the shelter without becoming conspicuous, David strapped on his backpack and walked aimlessly outside. In the brisk air, though, he quickened his steps and headed for the restaurant where he might find food. A piece of toast and an overripe banana was all he could find. He ate the toast, wrapped the banana in a napkin he pulled from the trash, and placed it in his backpack for later.
At the mall he walked around the buildings twice before he could get inside. Besides getting warm, David enjoyed window shopping. He stopped at a jewelry store to look at a watch that reminded him of the one Dad gave Mom for her sixtieth birthday. He wished he could buy her some earrings that he knew she would like. Thoughts of Mom brought back his dream. He could not bear the realization that Mom and Dad would be worried about him. Somehow he had to let them know he was okay, but how? He couldn’t write a letter and he didn’t have a telephone.
In one of the shops, a lady placed her cell phone on the counter when a friend called her aside to look at some jeans. The two women were busy examining the jeans and no one else was around. David was sure he could snatch the phone without being caught.
Stealing was a terrible thing to do but David was desperate. He opened his backpack so he could hide the phone quickly and stepped into the store to stand before the counter. With no one watching, he grabbed the phone and made a fast retreat.
For several moments David’s heart raced and his body trembled. As he walked, his mind was in turmoil. Although grateful that he had not been caught, guilt stabbed at his inner being. He had hurt someone else the way he had been hurt. That wasn’t right. That was not right at all. At the same time that guilt overwhelmed him, David had another concern. While he remained in the mall, he feared he might yet be caught. If he sat down on a bench to make a call, the woman might come by and recognize her phone.
In spite of hating the thought of leaving the warmth of the mall, David knew he had to get out of there. Outside, he had nothing in mind except to get away to some place safe to make his call. When the lady who owned the phone discovered it was missing, she would probably call to have the service turned off. That’s what Mom did when her cell phone was once stolen. He wanted to make the call before the service was turned off.
He ran out to the busy street and found a hallway in between two tall buildings where he decided it would be safe to call. He pushed the numbers that he had learned when he was a little boy. His parents had him repeat the number until it was etched on his mind. While waiting for Mom or Dad to answer, he rehearsed what he would say. Instead of hearing Mom’s voice, he heard a woman say, “I’m sorry your call cannot be completed as dialed. You must first dial the area code and then the number.” What did all that mean? David wondered. Had he stolen a phone and hurt someone else for nothing? He didn’t know what an “area code” was. He did not need to do that before in his hometown.
When David found himself in front of an appliance store, he noticed a big screen television in the window. One of the programs he often watched at home was on. He began to get interested and laughed at the funny parts. The man inside noticed him and opened the door to come outside. David started to move on.
“No, don’t leave. Would you like to come inside and watch TV?” the kind man said.
“For real? You mean it?”
“Yes, you look cold and tired.”
“Yeah, I am. Thank you,” David said as he followed the man inside. It was good to sit down and get warm.
Just when hunger pangs began to take over David’s thoughts, his benefactor said, “I brought a sandwich for lunch today. I’m not that hungry. Would you like to share it with me?”
“If it’s okay, I’d really like that.”
They went in the back room to eat. “A bell will ring if a customer comes in,” the storekeeper explained. After devouring the bigger half of the chicken salad sandwich, David took a big gulp of soda and started in on the potato chips. When he finished eating, David wondered what to do about the telephone call. If he was going to get through to his parents, he would have to have help because he did not know anything about codes the woman mentioned.
“Is there anything else I could do for you?” the man asked.
This was probably the best opportunity he would ever have. David plunged right in to explain his problem with the phone. “She said something about codes.”
“Oh, yes. Area codes. Tell me where your parents live.” After locating the area code, the kind man explained the extra numbers David needed to use to call his home. Then he handed the ringing phone to David.
Would anyone answer? he wondered. When Mom answered after four rings, David was so nervous he could hardly speak. “Mom,” was all he could say.
“David, where are you? Are you all right? Will you be home tonight?” Her questions all ran together.
“I just want to let you know I’m okay, Mom. I love you.” “I love you too, David, but your father and I are worried about you. Let us come and get you.”
“No, Mom, I’m okay, but I needed to get away. I couldn’t stand getting hurt by the boys anymore.”
“Just come home, please, David, and we’ll figure something out.”
“No, Mom. I can’t. I gotta go.” David hung up the phone before Mom could say anything more.
Tears were near the surface but, if he was going to break down, David wanted to be alone. He managed to say, “Thanks for your help,” before rushing out the door back into the cold.
Time began to drag. David tired of trudging the streets but he couldn’t think of anything else to do. When he saw a pay telephone on the corner, he felt a ray of hope. At home he had learned to check the coin return box for change. No luck this time, but someone had left an empty soda can on the shelf. Aluminum cans could be returned for cash; so David placed it in his backpack.
Although he knew that Church On The Street would not return to that location until next week, he began to walk in that direction anyway. When he reached the site, he found a concrete block where he sat down to think. Talking with Mom had caused homesickness, but he wouldn’t even consider returning home. All he asked of life was food to eat, a place to sleep, and – most of all – peace from his tormentors. Somehow, just being in the parking lot, where the church had treated him so well, brought him a good feeling.
It was here that David learned that God loved him. “Would God still love him after he stole the phone?” he wondered. Mom certainly did not love whoever stole her phone. She talked about that terrible person for a long time.
Overcome by feelings of guilt, David had to get rid of the cell phone. He wished he could return it to the owner, but that was impossible. Removing the phone from his backpack, he tossed it in a pile of weeds. The act did not relieve the guilt at all. If the owner did not have the service turned off, someone might find the phone and run up a big bill – maybe even make a call to China. To prevent anything like that from happening, David retrieved the phone and smashed it into a hundred pieces.
He then ate the banana that would have to suffice for his evening meal.
When the shelter opened for the night, David had been waiting outside for a long time. In fact, he was the first to arrive. As other men joined him, they shared more tips for surviving on the streets. “Always check out parking lots for money. When people take car keys out of their pockets, they often pull out change that falls to the ground,” someone explained. He learned where to take aluminum cans for cash and what places he should avoid. Treading on a gang’s territory could put him in the kind of danger he had run from.
Surprising to David, the two-block area where Church On The Street just met was one of the most dangerous places in the city. “It’s called the pit of hell,” he was told. Just last week someone was murdered there. It was the practice of Church On The Street to set up in the most dangerous areas of the city.
“Why do they do it that way?” David asked.
“They want to take the story of Jesus to places where it’s most needed,” someone explained.
David shuddered. With the news, a dark cloud like an ominous threat seemed to envelop David’s being. Apparently he had a lot to learn about survival on the streets. One of the first things he wanted to do was find all the locations of Church On The Street. It was there he felt safe.