Sidewalk Chalk and, Her
"The following semester I returned to Grand Valley State University to finish my degree. But a profound, indefinable transformation had erupted within my heart. I was no longer the intimidated, quiet kid with no direction. Instead, I could not shut up about this new Way of living. I felt responsible to communicate this life-changing message to everyone in my path.
I remember walking in to the University Bookstore on campus, and buying out all of their colored chalk. I proceeded to paint Jesus graffiti all over the sidewalks, on the sides of buildings and buses and even the clock tower. “You are loved.” I would write, “Love wins!” and “Go now, you are forgiven.”
One day the local campus ministry pastors called me in to their office. They sat me down and asked me what my objective was. I didn’t really know. Then they expressed deep concern for me. “Quite frankly, Jerry, we’re worried about you!”
(Apparently, my energy made them nervous.) I suggested that there were approximately seventeen thousand students on campus who could probably use more of their concern than me. Then I began to laugh hysterically at their nervousness, and told them that I would pray for them.
And that was the day I got kicked out of campus ministry.
Perhaps it was the fundamentalism that had been rooted within me, or maybe I was just born stupid. But I began to seek out some of the most dangerous places to testify of the resurrected Christ. I used to set out on foot, through some of the most violent neighborhoods in West Michigan, hoping to stumble into a conversation with the homeless, drunkards, prostitutes, or those who were simply lonely.
Every Saturday evening I would walk down Division Street in Grand Rapids, alone. I would breathe in the scent of the painful reality that incarcerated so many of the nameless faces who had gathered under the streetlights. Sometimes I would simply strike up conversations with whoever was waiting at the bus stop, or sitting on a park bench. Often, they would ask me for money, and I would give what little I had to offer. But on occasion, a conversation would actually allow for me to listen to the harrowing accounts of those who had suffered violently at the hands of an abusive system of evil, or an addiction that could not be shaken.
One evening in particular, I was listening to a homeless man share his personal story. “Rick” was veteran who had returned from Vietnam with Post-Traumatic Stress-Syndrome, leaving him unable to work. He had been well-cared until the death of his wife, a few years earlier. I listened to him as the tears rolled down his face, reminiscing of the night she was taken in a horrific car accident. He lost his wife, and their only daughter.
He paused to control his breathing, and to brush away the salty wetness from his eyes. I noticed a hospital bracelet that remained on his wrist. “How can I help you, Rick.” I asked. Considering the logistics of getting him the significant medical attention he required, I felt helpless. He was unable to stop shaking his hands. On Tuesdays afternoons he would give his own plasma, and eventually he was able to save up for the cost of the prescription medication to combat the shaking. He would also collect recyclable bottles, and try to make ends meet.
It was cold outside, and beginning to rain. I walked to the nearest vending machine, and bought him a hot cup of coffee. Regretting my own inability to ease his financial burden, at least I was able to console him for a while. In my return to Rick I handed him the Styrofoam cup, and suggested he stay warm. He looked at me graciously, not wanting to embarrass me. In my ignorance, I failed to realize that a man with uncontrollable shaking could not hold a cup of scalding liquid! Unsure as to what to do, I simply set the cup of coffee down on the sidewalk next to him, and we both sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity.
Back to the Chalk Art, and Her
In between classes I used to sit and listen in amazement to Preacher Tom. While he would spitting and shouting about the whoremongers on campus, I used to paint the sidewalks around him with words like, “Loved.”
I will never forget the day that a petite, Puerto-Rican beauty stopped to read my words. She seemed inquisitive, and I handed her a piece of chalk. She sat down next to me, and doubted whether she had the courage to write anything.
Jamie Jo was dripping with charisma, and I was pretty much putty at the introduction. We talked for hours that afternoon. I skipped class and we walked to Afterwards Café on the center of campus, and agreed to meet again the following afternoon for lunch.
She met me at the clock tower, and we walked to the café, again. That fall semester would become the season of electricity in a lifelong romance. I did not flinch when she shared with me the intimate details of the traumatic events in her adolescence. And she did not cower away from the scars I exposed for her to witness. She too, had been involved in a valiant war against the spirit of depression and self-hatred. She could relate to my feeling of isolation of disconnection from belonging.
This would become the catalyst for a best friendship that would never be in jeopardy. Together, Jamie and I set out to share with the whole world this message of God’s redeeming grace. Jamie initiated and led a bible study in her dormitory. Even as a freshman in college (yes, I was a senior), she was learning and memorizing stories of the Bible, and sharing them with delicate authority. I was so proud to be seen with this (smokin’ hot!) Jesus freak, I couldn’t wait to spend the rest of my life at her side."