Compassion and a man named Charlie

Allison Miller, '20

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The drive through the barren desert of Wyoming was like swallowing dry sand, starving the eyes for something other than rolling hills of fields. Fortunately, the monotonous landscape combined with the large windows of the church van were the perfect recipe for some aimless thinking, much like the cliché scenes in music videos that portray someone deep in thought. I had signed up for the high school summer mission trip my church put on each year and we were traveling toward the heart of need — the homeless shelters of downtown Denver.

In my mind, the task was simple: serve the needy and uplift the downtrodden. Make a difference, change the world, along with the other glorified dreams of a small town girl who had little experience with big cities. Most of the week was a blur of faces and stories; however, before leaving we made one last stop at a senior day shelter.

The room was dark when I walked in, a refreshing break from the intense heat outside. The clock on the wall read 4:00, but time was not really needed there. The afternoon was as lazy as the air in the room and the flies buzzing softly in the window sills, making it a perfect atmosphere for some good conversation. Spying a man in the corner, I pulled up a chair and introduced myself to a man named Charlie.

His scalp was sparse for hair, marking his age. He was wearing a checkered flannel and faded leather work boots to go with his patched jeans. His demeanor was that of an adventurous youth, his eyes bright and voice excited with a tone that dipped over peaks and valleys in his speech, marking him a veteran storyteller.

Charlie told me how he grew up and went to school in Orlando, Florida in the 1960’s. One of his very unique gifts was his sharp photographic memory. He was incredibly gifted in all areas of mathematics, by definition, a phenom. We quickly connected in this, as I, though surely not a prodigy, have an excitable passion for math. He became equally excited as he told me of his work at NASA charting flight configurations. Though brilliant, he was trapped in the unforgiving waves of misfortune. He came down with disease after disease, suffered several strokes and heart attacks, lost his parents and wife, and soon found himself out of money and unable to pay the countless medical bills.

And yet, what was strange about this man was as he was telling me this horrific story, he kept smiling and cracking jokes, so glad to be sharing his life with someone who wanted to listen. He was thankful for his hardship he said, for it allowed him to find hope in nothing and thereby share that joy with those who had none, something he did very successfully according to those sitting nearby.

I was shocked and perplexed by this virtuous man and could not put him from my head as once again we drove across the bland expanse of Wyoming toward home. I had thought it was my job to bless the homeless of Denver; but in the end, I was the one who was inspired by the goodwill of the Charlie and others I had met. Since then, I find that when I am self-centered and am dwelling on my own problems, I remember Charlie. Although I knew him but two hours, he reminds me to find someone and inquire about their day. No man is too low or too high that they cannot take the time to show love to their fellow men.