Huck has a quiet way about him. He has a nice smile that occasionally spreads across his face and a deep, gravely laugh that shakes his shoulders when he chuckles. He often sits alone with his bottomless cup of iced tea, and sometimes lays his head on a table to “rest his eyes,” because last night’s sleep wasn’t so good. Often he comes up from these naps, hair standing wildly on end, so I teasingly call him Einstein. Huck is one of our friends who lives outside.
I have had several conversations with Huck over the last few months, and surprisingly he has what I might call a “stubborn” streak down in there—maybe even a “mean stubborn streak.” On the outside he appears calm and passive, but when he starts talking about “the way things ought to be” you discover that in his own words, Huck “doesn’t put up with no s@$#.”
Last week Huck and I had a bit of a run in.
There is a young man who hangs out at Joe’s who has severe mental and emotional problems, as well as a seizure disorder that makes his life extra difficult. He’s loud and abrasive, has few social skills and often demands that he receive attention and that he receive it now. We have been loving this young man for more than five years now, and so I know his story.
His life has been hard. His mother did not know what to do with him, so he grew up in the foster care system, ran away from foster homes multiple times, got in trouble with the law—spent years in juvenile detention centers for violent crimes. He has few relationships—has been rejected by nearly everyone he’s known, and he angrily struggles with wondering why a God who says He’s our good Father would allow him to experience so much pain.
In those early days of Joe’s, he would eye the basket of muffins on the counter and ask, “Can I have one of those?” Now, Joe’s Addiction is set up as a for-profit business. We have to pay the bills somehow. Those muffins are for sale. I could hear Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount echoing clearly in my mind, “Give to those who ask of you.” But . . . If I give one to him and the word gets out that we give stuff away . . . “Give to those who ask of you.” How do I know he’s really in need? Maybe he has money, he just doesn’t want to spend it. “Give to those who ask of you.” But . . . No conditions. No qualifications. No requirements.
I gave him a muffin. Over the years I have given Toby many muffins, and over the years God has paid every bill, including expanding ministry through Joe’s that has required renting extra space. (But that’s another story.) This story is about Huck and Toby and our run in.
What Huck, who is new to Joe’s, does not know is that the Toby who is part of our community now is lightyears from the Toby who we first met. He now goes to counseling. He is on medications that help him to have fewer seizures and to be able to focus his mind. He’s paying his court costs and fines every month, and he’s a few months from finally being finished with probation, and is looking forward to some hopes and dreams for his life.
So the run in . . . Toby was rattling away, telling me in detail about some video he had just seen on Youtube, and Huck rudely interrupted to tell me he wanted a brownie. He even said to Toby, “Go away. Nobody cares about what you’re saying.” And then asked me for a brownie.
I was startled. I turned to Huck and said, “You’re being disrespectful. Toby was talking to me, and I will get you a brownie when he’s finished.” To which Huck in a huff replied, “Well, if you don’t want my business, I’ll just go somewhere else.”
Toby said, “It’s okay. It’s not that important” and went to sit down at a table.
I put my hand on Huck’s shoulder, hoping my gentle touch would settle him down. It seemed to. He sat down and we had a talk. I asked him where that came from, and he began to tell me his frustrations with Toby, with how disrespectful he is. Not only Toby, but others who come to Joe’s and just take, take, take, and then are ungrateful or say disrespectful things. He said, “It’s not right. This bothers me, and I just can’t stand it. I don’t like him, and the next time that boy mouths off, I’m gonna pop him one. And I will, you know. I’ll do it. I’ve been to prison. I know how to do that life. I don’t mind goin back. That boy needs to be put in his place, and I know how to do it.”
I pointed to the “Conduct Code” that we have posted on the wall. Only two rules: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” and “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” I reminded Huck that these are the teachings of Jesus, and that this is what we ask of people who hang out at Joe’s. Huck responded, “I’ll do to him however he does to me, all right. If he disrespects me, I’m gonna disrespect him.” I laughed and told him, “No Huck. It’s the other way around. We do to others what we wish or hope they would do to us. We love them.” He said, “Are you kidding me?! I not gonna love that @#$%^&*!”
I acknowledged Huck’s frustration and the truth of the things he was seeing about people—even about Toby. And then I talked to him about stories—everybody has a story. Everybody has a lifetime of stuff that has made them the way they are. It doesn’t mean they’re excused from good behavior, but knowing their story helps us to understand why they act the way they do and to have mercy for them when they do. I explained that we don’t just let people misbehave, but that we talk to them gently and help them learn to act differently.
We argued back and forth for a while, and then Huck said, “Jamie, I’m an old man. I understand what you’re saying, and you might be able to do that, but this is who I am—who’ve I’ve been for many years. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I laughed and jumped on that! “I may not be able to, but Jesus can! If you let him Huck, Jesus can teach you some new tricks!” Hesmiled and just shook his head, while I went to get him his brownie.
Yesterday was Sunday, and Huck came to me at church. He pulled me aside and said, “Something happened to me. I gotta tell you.” He went on to tell me that he had a dream. In the dream we were all at Joe’s, and I was walking around serving people chicken and cleaning up their messes, and he was thinking, “Why does she do that? These people are ungrateful. They don’t deserve her help.” When all of a sudden, he realized that he and I both were wearing glasses. His glasses caused him to see everything in black and white, but I was wearing “rose-colored glasses.” He woke from the dream, and he knew that God had somehow given me those glasses, that the rose-colored glasses help me to see the good in people that he cannot see. He said, “It’s a gift from God, and I kept thinking, ‘but I don’t have that gift.’”
The morning after the dream, he had come to Joe’s as usual and there was Toby—and as usual, Toby was getting on his nerves. He sat and watched for a while, fuming, thinking somebody needs to teach that boy a lesson. Huck said, “If I’d have acted like that when I was young, my daddy woulda whooped me.” Then something just snapped inside of him. He jumped up, headed toward Toby to punch him out. But on the short walk of about 15 feet, something came over Huck. It was like a rush of peace. He felt it pour from his head to his feet, and by the time he reached Toby his fists had relaxed.
He sat down with Toby and they had a conversation. I could just imagine Huck with his wild Einstein-hair waving, giving Toby a “talkin-to.” He told a little story illustrating disrespect and asked if Toby thought that kind of behavior was acceptable, to which Toby said, “No, man. That’s not cool.” Huck said, “That is how you’re acting, and it needs to stop.” Toby responded to him, “I get it. I do.”
As Huck shared this experience with me, tears welled up in his eyes and his voiced cracked. He said, “I think just maybe God can give me those rose-colored glasses.” To which I laughed and said, “You see! An old dog CAN learn new tricks!”
One more thing: I have a special affection for Toby, because somewhere in those early days of giving him free muffins he began to call me, “Mom.” This is one of the precious joys we have in the Joe’s Community. Family relationships have developed all over the place. I am not the only “mom,” as other women that God has blessed and freed are caring for other younger ones. Many of us call one another sister and brother, and even some of equivalent age call each other, “Mom” or “Aunt.” We see God restoring family relationships that have been broken or lost by giving new relationships in the family of God. I even get called, “Mom” by some who are older than me. A funny, but special feeling.
I couldn’t help noticing that Huck has now become a “dad” for Toby. Maybe not the kind that gives an @$$ whoopin, but the kind that speaks with strength and authority bringing help and correction to a young man who desperately needs to be loved in a family.