How a Homeless Man Changed My Life

Jena Nardella

I believe that God speaks to us in the everyday moments of our lives – the people we pass by on the street, the whispers of heaven through a quiet walk in the woods, the glimpses of new perspective that come from the simple art of paying attention.

When I was 9, I met a homeless man who changed my life. He stood alone on a San Francisco corner with a droop in his face and an ache in his voice. He was hungry.

*Photo by Alex E. Proimos, Creative Commons

I couldn’t stop thinking about him while I was out to dinner with my mom, and I stared at my food like it didn’t belong to me. I wrapped my hamburger up and walked back to give the hungry man my dinner. We walked street after street in search for him, but we never found him. Since then, I have been walking through life looking to know more people like him.

When I was 13, I regularly snuck out of church to hang out at the city park with my homeless friends. I’d buy them a sandwich from Subway or Arby’s and listen to their stories. I learned that there were countless hungry bellies and beaten souls out there, and that life is a battle for so many.

When I was 15, I showed up to volunteer at the Red Cross shelter and they were so short on help, they immediately appointed me kitchen facilitator – ensuring that the residents would be served dinner each night. I spent three years rushing between school and extra-curricular activities and building a community of friends among the staff and residents of the shelter.

I went to college to become a nurse. But then I passed out every time I visited a hospital. So I got into politics and international studies. I quickly learned that the stories of the poor in America are a mere sample of what the rest of the world experiences. While in nursing school, I had learned about HIV/AIDS and how the virus attacks the weakest parts of our immune system. While studying international relations, I discovered that the HIV/AIDS crisis was also attacking the weakest members of our society: women and children in Africa.

When I was 21, I seized an opportunity to bring attention to those who have been most affected by the HIV/AIDS and water crises in Africa. I thought of that homeless man and how he was ignored amidst personal suffering, and I wished for a different story for him and for all who have felt written off and forgotten.

Today at 30, I think often about what my life would have looked like had there not been a sacred grace at nine years old when one person’s humanity lured my own, and it continues to affect the way I live today.

May we all risk the art of paying attention.

-Jena Nardella

Jena Nardella

Jena Nardella