LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR - Even if he’s weird. Even if he’s different. Even if he’s a stranger.By KIM TOWNSEND,
It had to be about 2012, to the best of my memory. I had been working as an administrative assistant for close to five months.
I made a declaration years ago that I would never work in a church, for a church, or even near a church.
After seeing, hearing, and living dramatic, spiritual warfare in my past, I had no interest in being behind the scenes. So of course, I fell into that exact scenario.
After nearly five months of working in the church, my worst suspicions came to be truth.
There was scandal, disappointment, drama, pain, and an incredible amount of chaos.
Thankfully, I was new enough on the team that past relationships, past conversations, and past experiences weren't clouding my judgement.
I was the "new kid" in the office that kept her head down and plowed through any and all tasks that were asked of me.
Every single day, I felt the weight of the office. The mood was grey and grief overtook all of us but we kept plugging away day to day. I remember reading a lot of inspirational quotes and books at that time, seeking anything that would help my soul find steadiness. I was so unbalanced.
My porous spirit absorbed every heartbreak, every tear, every pain my new friends and colleagues felt and endured.
I don't know the day, the month, or the time but I do remember the words I prayed: "God, help me to love people I don't know or understand. God, help me to love people I don't want to love. God, help me to love people because I don't know how."
In my grief, in my struggle to find peace, I needed some serious intervention to not let my pain turn to anger, as it always had.
I needed understanding.
I needed logic.
I needed grace and mercy.
As the days and months passed, God answered my prayer in the most challenging way possible.
A man by the name of Nathan crossed my path. Nathan Wayne to be exact. I had been briefed on Nathan, about his character, about his demeanor, about the personality that made him so incredibly unique.
I asked for a physical description of him so I could be on the lookout and the response I got was, "You'll know him when you meet him."
He walked into my office early one morning, right around the time I arrived.
He appeared to be your stereotypical homeless man, to be honest. He was a small shell of a man with a massive head of hair.
His beard was thick and engrossing. It was hard to see anything else. He had few teeth so when he spoke it was muffled and deep.
He was difficult to understand. His face was aged and every line in it was darkened with dirt.
He was a roamer, a walker, a nomad. He traveled in the same spaces weekly but never stayed in the same space for too long.
His fingernails were long and unmanicured. They looked as if he worked in a welding yard.
As he walked through my office door I remember I was standing behind my makeshift desk, as our building was under construction at the time.
As I looked up and saw this man, I took two steps back, almost stumbling.
From his muffled words I deciphered who he was there to see and that he was in fact, Nathan Wayne.
The character in the staff's stories had finally come to life in front of me.
I hate admitting my initial feeling towards him was fear. I was afraid of this frail, frazzled man because I had always been taught to be afraid.
I mean, he was homeless, so I assumed.
He was weird. He was different. He was a stranger.
Over the days and months that came and went, Nathan Wayne came to the church daily to see me.
I got to know him.
I learned that he was not in fact, homeless. I learned that he was a little weird.
And yes, I learned he was quite different than me, which quickly became intriguing rather than fearful.
And after a few short months, he was no longer a stranger.
Each morning he would come for the free coffee and I always made sure to make plenty, just in case he came back later for a refill. Some days he would get his coffee, thank me and leave. Other days, he would pour his coffee, load down at least half the cup with sugar and cream, and linger.
On the lingering days I invited him to have a seat.
Some days he would sit in silence.
Some days he would talk to his companion, unseen to me but quite real to Nathan.
Some days he would ask me to do impossible tasks for him, like pull up bank account information or check on the status of the $10,000 bonus check he sent me.
Yeah, I never got that check, sadly.
Some days he would just sit and talk.
Most days I had no idea what he was talking about but every once in a while I would throw in a very short, reassuring response like “uh huh,” “okay,”or “oh really.”
I learned he just wanted someone to listen. I learned he had no one on the street that ever really did that.
Most importantly, I learned that Nathan Wayne was human.
In the almost three years I knew Nathan, I always assumed he knew my name but I don't recall any one time he called me anything other than his secretary.
He would enter the church and if I wasn't at my desk he would walk down the hall exclaiming "Where's my secretary?!"
For a while, I added Nathan Wayne Enterprises to my resume. It was worth the notation, as he became that important in my life.
It also made for a good laugh with those that knew my relationship with him. And it explained the $10,000 bonus check that he thought he had sent to me. In his mind, I was his employee.
My friend Nathan wasn't actually homeless, although he would appear that way to most.
He walked for miles, all over the city. He was on the street more than he was ever at any of his apartments.
He was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age and even with a monthly injection, he would never be freed from the chaos in his mind. This explained much about his difficulties communicating, his difficulties responding in common situations, and his complete disregard for personal hygiene.
His mental illness may have hindered him in some regard but he navigated a system that dismissed him in every way, the best way he knew how.
As I learned more about him, as I watched him and listened to him, I was taught that because of his mental illness I needed to take a step back.
I needed to be patient. I needed to understand that I couldn't treat his response to life and the things in it the same as I would someone without a mental illness.
The realization that we all perceive life differently was something that echoed throughout my friendship with Nathan Wayne.
Every encounter we had, every conversation, every moment I spent with this seemingly odd man, made me a better person.
He was beautiful in every single way. He taught me to be fearless. He taught me to see people like him as human. He taught me to see people.
Most importantly, he taught me to love people. All people.
I said a simple prayer, yet a complicated prayer, “God, teach me to love people.”
I thought I was asking God to teach me to love the difficult people that were right in front of me, but instead he taught me to love the people that I wasn't even seeing.
Nathan Wayne is where my passion for others began.
One life that changed another.
That seems like the way life should always be every single day.
Kim Townsend is the City of Hattiesburg’s Community Development - Homeless Coordinator and manages the Pine Belt Coalition on Homelessness.