An Unexpected Friendship
by Grace Mullaney Humbles
In the summer after her freshman year at Covenant, Emily felt God calling her to serve a homeless woman in downtown Chattanooga. “I just started walking around the Coolidge Park area,” says Emily. “I was praying, ‘OK, God. Where is this homeless woman you want me to reach out to?’ I didn’t see any.” Emily eventually sat down on a bench beside an older man named Walter.
“Walter is a quiet guy,” says Emily. “And he has this one big dreadlock that hangs over his left shoulder.” She was able to strike up a conversation with the quiet Walter and learned that he was a Vietnam War veteran. When Emily left, she and Walter agreed to meet in the park again the next Sunday. Soon it was a Sunday tradition for the two to meet in Coolidge Park to talk and play gin rummy.
Although Emily faithfully visited Walter in Coolidge Park, it took a few months for her to look forward to their visits. “At first it was something I felt like I should do,” she says. “It was a little out of my comfort zone. But I remember one day a little kid came up and said hi to us, and it was amazing to see Walter light up just from a short interaction with that little kid. I started to really see him as a person and as my friend.” As their friendship grew, Emily started learning more about Walter—he hates bananas, but he’ll eat fried chicken, and he likes basketball and Frisbee.
From time to time, Emily asked Walter if there was anything he needed, and he usually refused. But on a cool day in November, he mentioned that he might need some new boots. The shoes he had were falling apart, and winter was on its way.
Emily made plans with James, the assistant resident director of her residence hall, to take Walter to a shoe store. “I remember the first time I saw his feet,” Emily says. “We had to take off his shoes at the store and I saw how dirty they were. The whole ride back to Coolidge Park I couldn’t stop thinking about his feet. I couldn’t stop thinking about how this man, a veteran, was so forgotten.”
Emily and James brought Walter back downtown with his new boots. “As I took off his old shoes, I couldn’t stop thinking about how dirty his feet were,” Emily says. “So I looked up, and asked him if it would be OK for me to wash his feet.”
Walter slowly agreed, and Emily brought water over to their bench, bent down, and she and James washed Walter’s feet. “It’s a humbling thing for your feet to be dirty, and to need someone to wash your feet,” Emily says. “But it was also humbling for me to have the opportunity to wash his feet. It was a vulnerable moment for both of us.”
After driving back up Lookout Mountain, Emily reflected on what had happened. “It made me think about how our sin is so filthy and so dirty before God,” she says. “But He washes our feet and cleans us anyway.”
In the past year, Emily and Walter have met almost every Sunday and their friendship has continued to grow. “I’ve been able to talk to Walter about the gospel some,” she says. “After we finish a few games of gin rummy, we’ll read the Bible together and talk about what we read.”
Emily is far from naïve about her friendship with Walter. Although he rarely asks her for anything, she’s aware of the danger of gullibility. “At some point I just decided to be a little gullible,” Emily says. “I’m safe and careful, but I don’t want to care for people based on how much or how little they deserve it.”
The names in this story have been changed to preserve anonymity.