Joel Stepanek

I’m Sorry I Walked By: An Open Letter to Peter

Dear Peter,

I am not sure if that is your name, but I never took the time to ask you for it. I know that there is great dignity in a name – that it elevates us above a nameless face in a crowd, our status in life, or the struggles we face. Our name is bound up in our identity. But I don’t know your name, and I don’t want to refer to you as just another anonymous person that could be anybody.

You were a specific person.

In a specific place.

At a specific time.

To be more clear, you were a man who was homeless sitting on the corner of Michigan Ave and Wacker Dr. in downtown Chicago on Saturday, December 10th, 2011. I was visiting the city with my girlfriend (who is now my wife) and two of my best friends. Everyone was getting ready for Christmas and the streets were busy. You were sitting on that corner, asking for change. It was lunchtime.

I don’t know how many thousands of people walked by you, never looking at you, even turning their eyes away from you. I don’t know how many people insulted you to your face and behind your back. I don’t know your past, where you had been, or what brought you to that corner on that day.

All I know is that I was one of those thousands of people who just walked by.

I had cash and change with me because I was shopping with my friends. It would have been easy for me to give you a couple of dollars and wish you a Merry Christmas. I could’ve pointed you in the direction of some services that may have been able to help, since I had recently done a youth trip to the area that summer and helped serve at a shelter for people who are experiencing homelessness.

But I didn’t. I ignored you because I was hungry, and busy, and selfish. Seeing you there, broken, cold, and possibly embarrassed to be asking for change reminded me how blessed I was to be wearing a jacket from Old Navy, working a job that I enjoyed, surrounded by people I loved, about to go eat lunch inside of a Corner Bakery in the commercial center of Chicago. It reminded me that I needed to share my blessings, remember to freely give as I freely have received, and reminded me that Christ loved the poor and I needed to do the same.

But I was on vacation. I wanted to forget about ministry and service and enjoy my time with my friends. I was selfish. So I walked by and crossed the street into the Corner Bakery, trying to ignore the guilt I felt.

Then something happened after we placed our order. A businessman walked in, and you were next to him. The two of you were talking. He was asking you questions – he probably called you by name. To him you weren’t another anonymous face, you were a person.

I watched as he ordered your food, even as people shot him dirty looks across the restaurant and whispered to themselves. He sat with you while you waited for your order, then ate his lunch with you. As the two of you got up to leave he gave you some money and wished you Merry Christmas.

I know this because I was sitting right there, no more than ten feet from you. In that moment I saw Christ – in you and in that businessman. And I realized how selfish I had become and how much I had failed that day.

I want to apologize for that; I want to apologize for not knowing your name.

For not being bolder.

For being so selfish.

For walking by.

I failed that day, but was blessed to see what compassion and love looks like. I was given a model, a living example of Christ, to aspire toward. I want you to know that I will and I do – even though I may never see you again, I will not underestimate the power of a name, a warm meal and conversion, and some spare change.

I hope one day we can sit down for that meal that I should’ve bought you, and that I can ask your name. But I know that may never happen, so I will continue to pray for you, because now it is all that I can do, and I will pray that I have the courage and grace next time to ask for someone’s name before simply passing them by.

Sincerely,

Joel Stepanek

Categories: Healthy SoulLessons LearnedMy Life

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Joel Stepanek

About the Author

I spent most of my 8th grade year in detention because there wasn’t a dare I wouldn’t accept. But in high school, my youth minister dared me to follow Christ and I haven’t looked back. I love all things Wisconsin, especially the Green Bay Packers. I can probably eat more cheese than you. (Please don’t dare me to prove it.)