It was early in the morning when I woke up. The night before I had made my bed in a dumpster, so waking up before the garbage truck arrived was important! Many bums have been killed because they were thrown into the garbage truck when the dumpster was emptied. I had slept fairly well that night. As I stretched and looked around, I realized that another man had crawled in during the night. He was sound asleep.
“Hey, you’d better get out of here before the garbage truck comes,” I said as I shook the man awake.
We climbed out of the dumpster and walked together down the quiet street. He introduced himself as Mr. Lewis. We had walked a little further when he turned to me and said, “I need a drink. Got any money?”
“No,” I assured him. “I don’t.”
“I’ve got enough for a small bottle of something,” he told me.
“Why don’t you come along?”
I wasn’t interested in sharing his liquor, but I was interested in the man. We soon found it was too early for the liquor stores to open, so
I talked him into a cup of coffee instead. As we walked, Mr. Lewis pulled a harmonica from his pocket and began to play. It was truly beautiful! “You’re really good at that,” I told him.
“It takes a lot of practice,” he replied. “You want to play it?”
As he handed me his harmonica, I noticed the tobacco juice all over it and the smell of stale alcohol. “Uh, no thanks,” I said as I handed it back.
“Ah, go ahead. Try it!” He pushed the harmonica in my direction again.
I didn’t want to offend him, so I put the harmonica to my mouth and attempted to play it. Tasting the tobacco and alcohol that were as much a part of the harmonica as the music it produced, I began to cough and spit. Mr. Lewis just laughed.
“You’re not supposed to suck in that hard. The idea is to blow out with smooth, calm breaths.” He took the harmonica back and began playing it for me. We laughed together as he finished his melody, dropped it into his pocket, patted it and said, “This is one of my best friends.”
“What is?” I asked.
“The harmonica. It soothes me in the evenings when I’m alone and gives me some encouragement to go on. It’s always dependable.” I reached into my jacket, patted my chest and said, “I have something here like that, too.” He eagerly asked to see it. “Oh, I can’t show you,” I told him.
“Come on. What are you talking about?” His curiosity was obvious.
I said, “It’s not really in my pocket; it’s in my heart. It’s Jesus Christ. He’s dependable. He helps me make it through the night and encourages me throughout the day.”
Mr. Lewis threw back his head and laughed heartily. “I thought you really had something in there!” he said. “But Jesus? I’ve had enough of that stuff to last me a lifetime. You know, I used to do all that churchy stuff.”
He went on to tell me about his childhood, emphasizing his church experiences while growing up. “I tried to be a Christian and follow the Lord. But as I grew up, I left it all behind.” Mr. Lewis was silent for a moment. Then he continued, “I started drinking, and before long all I cared about was making money. I wanted to be a millionaire. That was my greatest goal.” His voice trailed off a bit. Shaking off whatever memory had come to mind, he said, “Wanting money is what got me on Skid Row. You see, Kurt, I worked so hard for money that I lost my family. I got caught stealing and lost my job. Things got bad—real bad!”
Mr. Lewis thought the liquor stores were probably open by now, so I walked with him as he searched one out. “You, know,” he started, “I haven’t thought about my childhood in so long. It’s kind of nice to reflect back to when times were simple.”
“It is fun to reflect on our lives and where we’ve come from,” I agreed, “but it’s also sobering to see where we’re going.”
“Kid,” he said, “we aren’t going anywhere. We’re here to stay!” I shook my head. “No, I don’t believe I’m here to stay. This is a nice place to visit, but there’s more to life than living here.”
“Some of us don’t have a choice,” he replied sadly. “You’re young enough, Kurt. You can still make something of yourself. I’m too old.”
“Mr. Lewis, that’s not true! You have a lot of life yet to live. But it’s your choice to either waste it away by drinking that stuff you just bought and living here—or making something of what’s left of your life.”
“It’s too tough. I can’t do it,” he replied.
“I agree with you there. You can’t do it.” He seemed troubled by what I had just told him and shot me an angry look.
“I mean you can’t do it alone,” I said. “You need some help, and that’s why I’m here—to encourage you. I want to offer you hope and ideas for leaving this place. Maybe I can help you find a job and some shelter. Maybe I can get you some help so you never have to let alcohol rule your life again,” I said, pointing to the bottle in his hand. Mr. Lewis pulled the bottle close to him, as if protecting a precious treasure that was about to be taken from him. “No, this is my second best friend,” he replied. “My first best friend has never left me, and my second best friend helps me when I need it.”
Rain began to fall, and the temperature was dropping fast. We jumped into a doorway for shelter but were soon chased off by the store owner. We spent much of the day running from doorway to doorway, dodging the raindrops and trying our best to stay warm. Mr. Lewis drank his liquor so fast, I wondered how he stayed on his feet. By nightfall, he was extremely intoxicated. Thankfully, we found a large canopy over a sidewalk. We had arrived early enough that there was still room to sit. Soon we were one huddled mass of humanity, as other bums ran under the canopy for protection from the rain. Many of the men had been drinking all day and were soon asleep.
Quietly, Mr. Lewis began to play his harmonica. The tune he played was “Amazing Grace,” and before long, those who were still awake began to hum along with the old familiar hymn. When he finished, I said, “You know, Jesus has that amazing grace for you. He gives us new life when we accept Him into our hearts.” “I remember all that,” he said sadly. “Those are fond memories.”
The man continued to play many songs from his childhood days; then he rested awhile. “Those songs were sung at my church when I was a kid,” he said. “Kurt, you know why I left the church? It just didn’t do anything for me. I wanted so much more. I wanted a nice house and a nice car. When I got some of that, I wanted more. I wanted a bigger house, a bigger car, and more money. Many Sundays as I sat in church, I wished I were at work making more money. I soon found myself spending seven days a week at work, making more money for more things.” After a moment he continued, “But the things never did anything for me either.”
“It sounds like you never allowed Jesus to be Lord of your life. Money was your top priority even when you were going to church,” I explained. He nodded his head, acknowledging that I was right. “Mr. Lewis, when you make Jesus the Lord of your life, He becomes the focus of all your time and the sole desire of your heart. You learn about Him and try to do what pleases Him. You develop a love relationship with Him.”
“Well, all I know is, those are good memories.” Mr. Lewis soon fell asleep with a heart full of longing for days squandered.
I was able to spend the next few days with Mr. Lewis. At every street corner there were men who would ask him to play some old song or hymn from the past. Mr. Lewis loved the attention and really hammed it up at times.
At the end of one particularly long day, Mr. Lewis was more intoxicated than usual and became rowdy. One of the bums asked him to repeat a song he had just finished playing. For some reason this angered him and they began to fight, really hurting each other with their blows. Mr. Lewis was getting the worst of it, and I was in between the two men, trying to break it up. Finally I was able to drag him away and find a quiet, secluded place where we could safely fall asleep.
Sometime in the night, Mr. Lewis woke up and attempted to play his harmonica. His face was so badly bruised, I knew playing even the easiest tune had to be painful. Nevertheless, he began to play “Amazing Grace.”
“I remember the story of amazing grace, Kurt,” he said. “No matter how much we fail God, He’s always there, ready to pick us up.” He looked at me hopefully and asked, “Do you think He is ready to pick me up again?” Before I could answer he continued, “You know it’s really mind-boggling to think how this great world started with a big bang!”
I thought to myself what a strange turn the conversation had just taken. “Well,” I said, “that’s an interesting concept.”
“Oh, yes, I forgot. You believe in a God who created it all,” he said in a condescending tone.
“Yes, I do,” I said, looking up at the sky. “The Bible tells us that God’s love is greater than all the stars in the heavens.”
For a long time, he just sat there gazing at the night sky. Finally he turned to me and asked, “Kurt, how can you believe in God?”
“You can only believe in God through faith,” I answered. “Faith is believing without seeing and acting on that belief—not only believing there is a God, but also believing He’s the master of the universe. He holds all things together that He creates. He is continually making new life that we can touch and see in the form of flowers and beautiful green grass. He created the very air we breathe. It takes faith to believe that He is the Lord of our lives. He gives us a free will so that we can choose to either believe Him or not. But when we choose to believe, He makes His presence within us undeniable.”
I let these words penetrate for a moment, then continued, “Do you remember the butterfly we saw yesterday?” He nodded his head. “That was a beautiful creation of God. It was like a painting in motion—a beautiful, living picture.”
He sat there staring at me. He seemed to be soaking up my words like a dry sponge soaks up water.
“Mr. Lewis, if you want to know if God is there, just ask Him to come into your heart. He’ll make beautiful things happen there. If you ask, He will take away the guilt and sin and create a beautiful new life within. He did this for me, and He’ll do it for you, too.”
Mr. Lewis moved his jaw as if he were chewing on something. Thoughtfully he said, “I’ve been fighting this idea of God for a long time. I had pretty well convinced myself there was no God, but I keep thinking there has to be someone or something in this universe greater than us. There just has to be.”
“That’s the Holy Spirit prodding you to believe in the Master of the universe, our Savior, Jesus Christ,” I explained.
Once again he fixed his gaze on the massive night sky. “There has to be a God to make this such a beautiful place,” he said, “but I’m not sure He can make a beautiful thing inside of me. There are a lot of things I’ve done and terrible things I’ve gone through. It’s too late for me.”
I leaned in close to him. “Mr. Lewis, you know what happens to make a butterfly?”
“Of course,” he replied. “Everybody knows that.”
“No, not everyone,” I said. “Tell me.”
He impatiently recited the obvious: “There’s a caterpillar who makes a little cocoon in a tree and surrounds himself with this cocoon for awhile. Then he turns into a butterfly.” His hands spread out, unfolding like wings, and his voice was hushed. Then, almost reverently he said, “It’s a beautiful act of nature, isn’t it, Kurt?”
“Oh, yes,” I agreed. “We’re like a caterpillar that’s surrounded by God’s love, and in time, through the process of grace, He works with us. God makes us into a beautiful butterfly—a new creation. He alone can give us peace that no man can explain. He alone gives us joy that doesn’t need alcohol or material possessions to prime it into being. He alone gives hope for life. Yes, there is someone bigger than us.”
Mr. Lewis was sober now and seemed intent on grasping the meaning of my words. “We’re sort of like that caterpillar, struggling along.” He chuckled softly. “It sure would be nice to be free and fly like a butterfly.”
I touched his arm and said, “All you have to do is accept Jesus into your life, ask Him to forgive your sins, and allow Him to be Lord in everything you do—your thoughts, your actions, your desires, and most important to you right now, your future.”
“But I don’t have a future,” he said again. “I’ve lived here on the streets for more than ten years. I can’t even remember what it’s like to have a job or a home.”
For another fifteen minutes, Mr. Lewis continued to talk about the hopelessness of his life. Finally he grew quiet.
“Jesus wants to be Lord of your future,” I told him. “If it’s to be here in the streets, He still wants to be Lord of your future. He can make something beautiful out of your life, Mr. Lewis. And do you know what? I think you’re beautiful already.”
For a second, he moved away from me, obviously concerned about my motivation for telling him this.
Laughing, I answered the question on his mind. “No, I’m not,” I said. “I just think God sees in you a man who has done some things that are wrong. He sees a man who’s hurting inside, a man who wants to be turned into a butterfly—to be set free!”
Mr. Lewis stood up, insisting, “Let’s ponder that thought for awhile. Let’s go find something to drink.”
I walked with him to a liquor store. He quickly emptied the bottle and went into a drunken rage. I even had to hold him back to keep him from fighting the other bums. It seemed to me that he was tortured inside.
Over the next few days, we talked more about God and about survival on the streets. One night, instead of heading for the nearest liquor store, he placed the change he had just panhandled for into his pocket, took my arm, and led me to an alley where other bums were sleeping. It was about 3:00 A.M., and I was exhausted. He told me to stay awake while he slept and then he’d stay awake for me so I could sleep.
While Mr. Lewis slept, I prayed that his heart would be open to receive Jesus’ love and salvation. He was more eager to listen than most I had worked with on the streets. I asked the Lord to speak to him.
The sun rose before he woke up. He stretched and with a big yawn said, “Let’s go get something to drink.”
“Hey, what about me? I need a little sleep, too.” I could barely keep my eyes open, desperate for a few hours of sleep.
“I’ll get a bottle and come right back to sit here while you sleep,” he said.
“Why don’t you see if you can make it without a bottle for just one day? Sometimes you’re difficult to control when you’re drunk,” I replied. The exhaustion I was feeling fueled my impatience. I was just too tired to deal with one of his drunken rages and all his endless questions.
Mr. Lewis paced back and forth in anguish. “Oh, Kurt, I appreciate it when you help me, but I need that bottle!” he pleaded.
I looked him straight in the eyes. “Mr. Lewis, you don’t need that bottle as much as you think you do. You call it a friend, but in reality, that bottle is your enemy. It gives you a false sense of hope and security. It leaves you with a taste for more and an emptiness you know it can’t fill. It’s taken everything from you!”
Mr. Lewis looked down the street toward the liquor store and then back at me. I could tell he was in turmoil.
“Okay,” he said. “If I go this one day without anything to drink, will you stay with me and help me through it?” I could see the fear in his eyes as he waited for my answer.
“Yes, I will,” I promised.
For the next two days, I watched Mr. Lewis fight the most violent battle I’d ever seen. He shook and raged and was completely out of control at times. He told me his stomach felt as if it had cramped up in knots. We bought him food from a nearby coffee shop, but nothing seemed to help. I could tell by looking at him that the pain was tremendous.
After two exhausting days, I made him take a walk with me. He followed anxiously behind, afraid to let me out of his sight. We walked toward the river in Portland, to an area that seemed miles from the city. I told Mr. Lewis that I hoped this peaceful place might take his mind off the temptation to buy liquor. It was a long trip on foot; we stopped every half hour or so to let him rest, but finally we reached our destination.
We spent a week beside the river. And it was there that Mr. Lewis made Jesus Christ the Lord of his life. He asked me if I would help him. I told him I would, but that my place was on Burnside Street working with the bums. I suggested that he move, find a job somewhere outside the area, and get some help. There were missions that offered this kind of help to those who were truly sincere about changing their lives. We prayed together and talked for the next few days. After visiting a few missions, we found one that would take him in and help in the ways he needed. There was great sadness when we finally parted ways. I headed back to Burnside, and Mr. Lewis left it all behind to start a new life. We held hands, prayed, and said goodbye.
As I walked away he said, “Oh, Kurt, wait.”
He took out his old harmonica and played a few chords. “I want you to have this,” he said as he handed me his most prized possession. “Every time you play it or look at it, I want you to remember me.
Remember that I replaced this ‘best friend’ with my real best friend, Jesus. He’s really changed my life like you said. Please take it and remember me. Let’s keep in touch.”
I began to cry as Mr. Lewis placed in my hand an important piece of his life. I knew that harmonica was one of the most valuable things he had on earth; it had given him an escape and some much needed peace during his days on the cruel streets of Skid Row. But now he’d replaced it with Jesus—his “number one friend”… his friend for eternity.