The Nike Air Zoom Flight 95 is one of my favorite sneakers of all time. First released in 1995 and worn most famously by Dallas Mavericks’ star Jason Kidd, it was a revolutionary sneaker in terms of design and comfort. We’d never seen a shoe like it, with the massive “bug-eyes” on the side, and the new low-profile Zoom Air in the sole.
When they retro’d in 2008, I picked up a pair at the Foot Locker in Edison, NJ as a wedding present to myself, since I was getting married a few weeks later. I still keep them in the original box, and have only worn a few times. I plan on keeping them nice and clean for the rest of my life. This year, Nike released them again for $140.
I currently live in Jersey City, NJ and work full-time for a church called Redeemer in New York City. I walk five minutes to a subway called the PATH that takes you right into Manhattan in about ten minutes. My average daily commute is not bad – about 40 minutes each way door-to-door. During those 40 minutes, at least one homeless person asks me for money. Over the years, I’ve learned that giving the homeless money does not necessarily help. I’ve also grown rather numb to the requests, since they occur so frequently. At the least, I try to be honest if they ask by saying I have no change, which is usually true.
Two months ago, as I was walking to the PATH on a Thursday morning, a young man I hadn’t seen before asked me for change. I gave him the usual response, but noticed something intriguing about him – he was wearing a brand new pair of Nike Air Zoom Flight 95s. “I don’t have any change,” I said. But then I added, “Nice kicks, though.” He said thanks and that was all.
In September, my church held a vision night for all staff members (about 150 people) and their spouses. The goal was to bring us up to date on where Redeemer was headed in the next few years. We are considered a big church in New York, with three congregations – one on the Upper West Side, one on the Upper East Side, and one Downtown (where I work). On average, about 5,500 people attend our church services each Sunday. At the end of the vision night, we were told by one of the pastors to look under our chairs for an envelope. Inside was $20 for each of us to use for our own personal ministries - basically a way to share the message of Jesus with someone in a unique and creative way.
Usually I’m not a fan of exercises like this, because it means going outside of your comfort zone and speaking to someone you don’t necessarily want to talk to. That $20 was marked, though. It was money somebody had given to our church, so I’d better put it to good use.
For over a month, I kept the $20 in my wallet. As people approached me for money on the streets, I told myself and God that they’d have to cross my path more than once as a sign. There were several moments when I was about to stop and give the money to someone, but told myself I’d need to see them again if it was meant for them. After a while, I figured I should just give the money back to Redeemer, though.
Last month, my brother and sister-in-law were visiting from Chicago and stayed with my wife and me in our 1-bedroom apartment. They slept in our living room, so there wasn’t much room to maneuver like normal. Since I work for a church, Sunday is the busiest day of the week for me. On Sundays for the past three years, I wake up at 5 AM, take a shower, make some cereal, brew some coffee, watch the Sunday Mass on Fox, do a little meditation, get my things together, and head out the door by 6:30.
Since my in-laws were in my living room, I cut out most of those activities that morning. I showered, got dressed, and headed out the door. With an extra twenty minutes to spare, I decided to head to Starbucks by the PATH station (the only coffee shop open at 6 AM on Sunday).
As I got close, I saw the young man with the Air Zoom Flight 95s again standing in my path. For a second, I considered walking right by him. I needed coffee, and I didn’t want to miss my train. Instead, I stopped.
“Excuse me sir, can you spare some change?” he asked.
Annoyed, but still intrigued by his sneakers, I decided to stop and talk to him. Maybe he was meant to have that $20. I wasn’t going to make it easy, though. “You’re standing out here with a brand new pair of Air Zoom Flight 95s, and you expect me to help you?” I said.
He seemed a little shocked that I knew exactly what he was wearing, but he was ready with an answer. “Someone gave them to me at the shelter,” he said.
I spent three years serving on our church Diaconate, which helped the poor and marginalized in New York City. Over those 3 years, I heard some wild stories - some were true, and some were a bit embellished. With that in mind, I had to learn more.
“Someone at the shelter gave you a brand new pair of $140 sneakers? That’s hard to believe.” I said skeptically.
“Some people are pretty generous,” he responded.
Some people are, I suppose. More questions.
“Where is the shelter?”
“Over on 16th Street.”
“What’s your name?”
“Where are you from?”
“Right here in Jersey City.”
“Where do you work?”
“I’m in between jobs right now.”
“How old are you?”
“What are you doing out here at 6 in the morning asking for money?”
William would go on to explain that a police officer confiscated his wallet during an altercation with some other people. Allegedly, the officer never gave William his wallet back, and now he had no money or form of identification. I asked why he hadn’t gone to any of the precincts to retrieve it. He said he had, but wasn’t able to find it.
As we talked, I started to realize maybe he was telling the truth. After all, what twenty-four year old would be standing outside asking for money in November at 6 o’clock in the morning on a Sunday?
“Alright,” I said. “I work for a church and I’m headed to work right now. I’ll give you $20, but you have to do some things for me.”
I gave William the $20 and my business card, and told him about our Diaconate. “We have people that can help you while you’re trying to get things straightened out.” I also told him about our church, and when our services were. I invited him to come check it out sometime.
William said thanks, and I went on my way to work (without the Starbucks coffee). Happy that I finally had an opportunity to speak to someone and give away the $20, I was excited to tell people at work about the meeting. It felt incomplete, though. For one thing, I didn’t actually share the Gospel with William. I didn’t tell him about Jesus, nor did I pray with him. I figured that wasn’t the last time I’d bump into him, though.
Sure enough, I ran into William at the PATH station again about a week later. “William, how are you?” I asked and shook his hand.
“I’m fine, remind me your name again?” he asked. I reminded him, and then asked if he had any luck retrieving his wallet.
“No luck yet.” he answered. We chatted a bit longer, and it seemed nothing had really changed for him since our first encounter. I told him I’d be praying for him and went on my way. Still, something felt incomplete.
Another week went by, and again I ran into William by the PATH station as I was headed to work that morning. “William, how are you?” I asked.
“Not bad – what was your name again?” he said. We weren’t making much progress. This time, I was going to find out more information as something seemed to be off. William would go on to tell me how he had just spent the last few days in the hospital. He had another run-in with a police officer, and he was sent to the hospital for evaluation. William has schizophrenia and has not been treated for it.
To make matters worse, he has no family in the area. Apparently, his parents have both passed away. Usually when someone suffers from mental illness and has no family support system, life can start to spiral out of control quickly.
William started to ask me for more money, but I said I couldn’t give him anymore. I needed to tell him about Jesus. William grew up in a Catholic household, but his mother converted to Islam. A few years later, she converted back. He had never been to a Protestant church, so I briefly tried to explain the main differences to him.
“We believe that Jesus was born and lived on Earth with us. He was fully man and fully God, and he lived a perfect life without ever sinning. He was crucified and died on the cross for our sins, so that we can be with Him in Heaven forever,” I blurted out, not sure if it was making any sense to him.
“Uh huh.” replied William, as he looked over his shoulder. “My bus is here and I’ve gotta get going.”
“Where are you headed?” I asked.
“Over to a shelter to get lunch.”
“Any other plans for today?”
“I don’t know - maybe get some food, hang out, smoke some cigarettes.”
William headed for the bus, and I headed to my train. I haven’t seen him since. I hope things work out for William, but the odds are against him. If it weren’t for his sneakers, I probably never would have talked to him in the first place. That $20 was marked for William, and it’s up to the God who divinely coordinated our three meetings to take the story from here.