Alan R. Burt is a state-licensed social worker who has been advocating for and working with the homeless on Cape Cod since 1993. He is also author of the new book Blessings of the Burden: Reflections and Lessons in Helping the Homeless.
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Twenty years ago I thought the homeless were all lazy bums taking advantage of our hard earned tax dollars. Unfortunately (as I thought then), we had a homeless shelter in our downtown shopping area. I would drive by homeless people in disgust as they pushed their stolen shopping carts.
One day at a stoplight I looked to my left and happened to see one of the homeless. He was elderly and very thin, with a white beard and ragged clothes. For some reason I didn’t turn away quickly, and as I looked at him, he smiled and winked at me.
The light changed, and I drove away, realizing as I did somehow that something very deep inside of me had suddenly changed. In fact, I knew in an instant that I would never be the same again.
My mind went into a spin as my heart took the wheel of my life, and I soon found myself walking into our local Salvation Army. I approached the army officer and, with tears in my eyes, said, “I am here to help.”
Norma gave me a hug, beckoned me into her office, and began to help me sort out what was happening to me.
Norma asked me: “If God was somewhere on this earth, would you want to find him?”
“Yes, of course,” I said. She then said, as she opened her Bible, that in Matthew 25 Jesus told us where to find God. She read, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40 NIV).
“What do you think about this?” she asked.
I said, “Mother Teresa wrote that in the face of the old, the poor, the sick and dying, we can see the distressed disguise of God.”
She smiled and said, “Let me introduce you to one of our homeless guests.”
Although I was a little nervous, I followed her down the hall to the dining room. To my surprise she introduced me to Henry — the same elderly man who had winked at me on the street corner. He was so easy to talk to, and his story was heartbreaking.
Henry said that his wife had come down with dementia and was sent to a nursing home. He said that with the loss of her social security he was unable to pay the rent and ended up on the streets sleeping behind dumpsters.
What was most amazing about Henry was that he was so pleasant and friendly. To his mind, he had a wonderful life and an amazing marriage of over 40 years, and he felt it would be sinful to be anything else but very grateful.
In the years that followed Henry introduced me to many of his homeless friends, most of whom I found to be extraordinary human beings that had only fallen on hard times. I was struck with how so many of them loved and took care of each other. More and more I came to understand the amazing meaning of Matthew 25. In a real sense I was finding God through the homeless. As I came to know, love, and help them, I discovered that I was also coming to really know and love God.
I contacted a number of churches, and soon I had developed an alternative shelter program in which a small number of homeless men and women would go to churches each night instead of the neighborhood shelter. It was amazing for me to see how the men and women changed because of the love they were getting from the wonderful church volunteers who cooked for them, talked to them, and slept alongside them.
A couple of years after Henry had passed away, I heard his sweet, gentle voice behind me saying, “Hey Al, write a book about us. Everyone who reads it will learn about us, and they will want to help us.”
I shook my head, thinking that these must be nothing more than silly thoughts running through my head. However, as time went on, I found I could not shake them. Nor could I shake the feeling that somehow, from the grave, Henry really was speaking to me, telling me what God wanted me to do.
In just a few weeks my book, Blessings of the Burden — inspired by Henry and all the other homeless I’ve come to know over the years — will be on bookshelves. Just as Henry suggested, I have written about my personal experiences coming to know and love Henry and other homeless men and women who have changed my life and blessed me in so many important and beautiful ways. I have also written in the book about an amazing organization formed by the homeless, for the homeless, which has proven with amazing success that the homeless can take care of themselves with just a little bit of outside help.
As Henry said, “Write the book. People will read it and be changed by it, that everyone will be blessed.”
That is my dearest hope for this book.
Click to order Alan R. Burt’s Blessings of the Burden: Reflections and Lessons in Helping the Homeless.