I was on the DC metro train headed back from a church service in Rosslyn, Virginia near Georgetown. A small church called “Veritos City Church” had their evening service. Brian, the student pastor, decided to take me and David, a student, to this service and support Veritos. The service was great! We worshiped the Lord and listened to a great message.
The service ended and we walked to the train station. We got on the train to head back to the Hampton where we were staying. It was right next to the Nationals Stadium. We were cutting up and having a great conversation about random things like most tourists do on the metro. (probably making too much noise and annoying the locals) That was until the train came to the next stop and a gentleman climbed aboard the train. This man was extremely large. Around 6’5” and around 350 pounds. I saw that he was carrying a pizza box with a half-eaten biscuit on top of it. In my mind I thought, “Aww yeah this man is about to chow down! Go ahead big man!” But as he sat down, our conversation halted completely because of the scent this man carried with him. He sat across from me and directly in front of Brian. As he sat down, people on the train scattered from this man. His smell drove everyone away, but for some reason we decided to stay and endure the smell.
He was wearing an orange sweater and gray sweatpants. You could tell he was not wearing anything underneath because the sweats had holes in them. He covered his back with that kind of blanket that you would find in the back of a uhaul truck. You know, the ugly ones you use to protect furniture from getting scratched? Yeah that kind. And it wasnt even much of one. It had stains all over it. I do not mean this to be rude, but this man smelled absolutely horrid. I noticed Brian leaning over trying to smell the railing of the train, and David covering his nose with his shirt. Yes, you read that correctly. Brian was burying his nose in the railing of a public train because this man had not showered in a very, very long time. Thankfully the man had his back facing us so he could not see our reactions to his scent. His hair was extremely nappy and covered in white. Not white hair, but dandruff, dirt, and whatever else found its way inside this man's scalp. I was in shock. I had seen homeless people before, but not like this.
After he devoured the biscuit, he opened the pizza box. I looked over and noticed that it was only crust. He smelled it before he took a bite, as if he was hesitant to eat it. Then I realized that this man had dug this old pizza box out of the trash and probably found this biscuit in the same trash can. That was his dinner. My heart shattered. Kids were complaining about the smell and we weren’t doing a great job at hiding it either.
Our stop approached and I stepped towards the door. I felt the urge to smile at this man. I had the thought, “So many people avoid this guy, when was the last time someone smiled at him.” I thought of Bob Goff and his challenge in his new book to smile at 10 strangers. The doors opened, I looked back and made eye contact with him. I faintly smiled at him as he had a mouth full of pizza crust from the trash can. I exited the train and began crying in the middle of the train station in DC.
“No one should have to live like that.” “That is his life.” “I will never complain again.” were the thoughts running through my head with tears streaming down my face. I began praying for him. “God let me see this man again. I want to help him.”
As we were making our final steps back to the hotel, the three of us talked about the encounter we just had. We discussed how we take things for granted in life. It was really messing with me. Seeing this guy really broke me.
We got back to the hotel . Each night we decided that the leaders and students would gather around a table and discuss our takeaway/what we learned each day while in DC. I shared what had happened and every detail and emotion that I felt when I encountered this homeless man. The team shared my empathy, but it wasn’t as heavy to them as it was to me. I could not stop thinking about it!
The next morning I got ready to tackle a day of service for Waterfront church. This guy was in the back of my mind as I was packing my lunch, so I decided to pack another. This motivated some students to pack extras and write scriptures on them and give them away to homeless people and invite them to Waterfront’s Easter service (which was at Nationals Ballpark by the way. How cool is that!)
We headed out of the hotel into the train station and made our way to the Union Station stop. Pretty much the center of the entire metro system. As I got off the train, I turned my head and boom. The homeless man was about 30 feet from us. He got up from the bench and got on the train just as we got off. I panicked. I didn’t know what to do! So many thoughts running through my head. People asking me, “Is that him? Is that him?” I opened my backpack with the intention of running on the train and giving him the extra lunch I made and talking with this guy about church on Sunday. "What do I do? Do I leave the group? I don’t know my way around the metro! What do I do?!" The unfortunate thing about city trains is that they give you about 4 seconds to decide if you are getting on or getting off. The doors started to shut. I waited too long. I saw the back of his head as the train pulled away. I instantly filled up with regret. I missed the opportunity.
One thing about me is that I wear my heart on my sleeve. If I am in a bad mood, people are going to know it. I try to hide it but I cannot. It’s a blessing and a curse sometimes. Brian, my mentor/teacher/best friend, can read me like a book. He came over as we exited the station and asked if I was okay. I responded with, “I missed it man. What if I don’t see him again. I prayed to see this guy and I missed it.” He goes, “Well you prayed to see him, so the Lord answered that. But you didn’t pray for an encounter to speak with this guy.”… Dang. He was so right.
I realized in that moment that this missed opportunity was exactly what I needed. It gave me a sense of urgency. Because the next time I saw this guy I was going to run after him. I was going to leave the group. Who cares if I get lost in DC. This man is more important than my comfort. He is worth it. The students also saw him now. They felt my pain a little bit more and some of them started to carry this burden with me.
That entire day I prayed for another encounter with this mystery man. We continued with our duties for Waterfront church by inviting people to the Easter service all over the city. These students were fearless. They were running into shops in Union Station and inviting people left and right. They were saying the name Jesus to everyone they encountered. It was incredible. We went over to Georgetown that afternoon and hung door hangers on doors all over the neighborhoods in Georgetown for Veritos church. We were inviting them to their Easter service. I took over 22,000 steps that day. My sister found out because I put the screenshot of my steps on my Instagram story to boast a bit. She lives in New York City. She was like, “Pshhhh that’s a normal day here bub!” It made me laugh and realize what a wimp I was. Nonetheless, my feet were killing me and I was chaffed like crazy on my inner thighs. We finally finished up the day and we met for dinner. We were exhausted from walking all over DC. I realized what Mormons feel like every single day of their mission. Then I had the thought, “What if Christians always had the attitude of others before self? What if we did whatever it takes to help people? How much different would this world be?”
What we were doing wasn’t radical or too much or out of the ordinary. It is how Christians are supposed to live always. We met back at the hotel and we debriefed about our day. We prayed and finished up our meeting. But a few of us decided that this day wasn’t over yet. It was time to find this man. Me and Dennis (an adult leader) and some other students decided to go out and find him. Tate, Ryan, and Faith went with us. I made myself a cup of coffee in the hotel lobby and I decided to make an extra just In case I run into this mystery man. Double-fisting coffee while I was walking out the door, Tate leaned over and asked me,
-“What are we gonna call this guy?”
-“I don’t know man. Good question.”
- “How about big orange? I like that.”
I laughed. He recommended "Big Orange" because of his huge orange sweater.
- “I like that too. Big orange.”
I hate UT sports. But how fitting that a group of students from Tennessee are going out to find “Big Orange.”
We rode train after train that night searching up and down every stop wondering if Big Orange was sleeping in the station. I carried this extra cup of coffee in my hand everywhere carefully trying to save every drop for Big Orange. I was thinking of what I was going to say when I was going to encounter him. Tate and Ryan were saying things like, “Were gonna find him.” “I've got a great feeling about this.” I was hopeful and expectant, but in a city of 2 million people, the odds of finding Big Orange again were very slim.
Dennis and I decided to walk to the end of a stop to see if Big Orange was anywhere to be found. As we were searching, he started humming the bridge of a song called “Reckless Love”. The words are,
“There’s no shadow you won’t light up, mountain you won’t climb up coming after me. There’s no wall you won’t kick down, lie you won’t tear down, coming after me.”
It hit me like a 10,000lb bag of bricks. The way we were chasing after this man, relentlessly pursuing him, is exactly how God pursues us. I cannot fathom that. I started crying right there. Dang. Thank you Lord. I don’t deserve your love.
After about two hours of searching, we decided to head back. I still had that cup of coffee in my hand I made for big orange. I still had hope in my heart. We didn’t find Big Orange, but we all found the true meaning of what pursuit looks like. Most people never realize in a lifetime what true love and pursuit looks like. I believe that God intended it to be that way. On our way out of the station, I stopped to ask the station manager if he had ever seen Big Orange. I gave him my description and he goes, “Big guy that kind of smells right?”... “Yes! That’s him. What train does he usually ride?” I asked. “Well, He usually stays in this area over here”, pointing at the orange line. (Irony cause Orange line. "Big Orange") “People over in that area give him food every now and then.” He told us that he is a smart guy, he just can’t afford his medicine to help him with his mental issues. He gets a check from the government but he has a sister that he gives all his money to because she needs it. As if I hadn’t already felt for the guy. He literally sleeps on the street to help his sister live a better life. We thanked the station manager for the information. Faith invited him to church and asked him if there was anything that she could pray for. We left that station confident that we are gonna find this guy our last day in DC.
The next day came and I got ready and headed downstairs for breakfast. As I got off the elevator, Ryan, a student, came up to me with Tate and he goes, “Hey Nathan when are we gonna find this guy?” ...Wow. These kids were as eager to find this man as I was. If not more! Faith went to the local CVS and made Big Orange a care package with an Old Spice body wash set, a pillow, and a bible. We threw about three days worth of sandwiches, chips, and cookies in this bag and headed into the city with determination in our hearts.
We decided to spend our last day in DC sightseeing. We saw the capitol, Lincoln memorial, Vietnam memorial, Korean War memorial, all the things you do in DC. The day carried on. As I was walking away from the Korean War memorial I looked at my phone and saw that it was 3:30pm. Small panic came to my thoughts. “We’re running out of time. I don’t care about this stuff. I’m tryna find Big Orange.” The group was going to the air and space museum, but I told them I wasn’t going. I’m going to find this man.
Dennis looked at me and said, “If you were gonna go at any time, this would be the right time to go.” My feet were killing me. I was starting to feel the chafe on my legs from the day before and I had carried this care package all day. My backpack was full of food for this man so my back hurt too. Luckily, Faith and I traded this bag of goodies back and forth. She ended up wanting to carry it. I let her since she was the one who made it for Big Orange.
Me, Tate, Ryan, Zach, and Faith headed into the train station and we weren’t headed out until we found Big Orange. Since the station manager told us that Big Orange rides the orange line, that is the one we searched first. Stop after stop we looked with no luck. We made it to the Union Station stop, probably the biggest transition line in the station. I searched up and down the bottom part of the station with no luck. “Should I go upstairs?” I thought. Something inside me told me to. So I did. The next train to Rosslyn on the orange line was 5 mins away. That was where I first saw Big Orange so that is the next one we were gonna catch. “Stay down here guys, and if I find him I’ll call you.”
I headed up the escalator. I was weary. I was tired. “What are the chances I am gonna find this guy? Its rush hour and there is no chance.” Hope was fading. I walk up the escalator, and as I turned the corner I noticed a large blanket near a trashcan. Was that him? … “GOT HIM!” I shouted. He was on the opposite side of the station leaning on a trashcan and sipping on the remains of a Starbucks drink. I ran to this man acting like a local rushing to the next train pushing people out of the way. Along the way, I texted in a group text that I had found him.
I carefully approached Big Orange. “God give me the correct words to say.”
-“What is your name?”
-“Anthony?” I asked.
-"Hey Anthony, my name is Nathan." I reached out to shake his hand.
-“Anthony, I saw you on the train Sunday night. I looked for you all day yesterday and all day today. Are you hungry?”
-“Here man I got you some food.”
I started to ask him a question as the red line train approached and he interrupted with,
-“Hey this is my train, you getting on?”
- (remembering my last missed opportunity) “Yep. I am actually.”
We get on the train and he finds a seat. Immediately people start moving away from this man because of the smell.
-“So how long have you been in DC?” I asked.
- (With a mouth full of cookies) “You ride this train? I’ll talk to you later. I can’t talk. I’ll talk to you later.”
I sat down. I listened to the people mock and laugh at this man for the way he smelled. I was pretty sad. All I wanted to do was talk to this man for the past two days. I thought about him pretty much all day and prayed for him. It was not how I pictured it going down. I immediately thought “I cant talk” was because of his problems with his lack of medicine. Everyone got off the train. And it was just me and Anthony.
He didn’t stop eating. But every now and then he would give me a squinty eyed look. You know like the one your mom gave when she was mad at you? I thought he was mad. He shot me this look with a bag of Cheetos in his hand. I just smiled back and said,
-“You like Cheetos?”
He smiled and shook his head as he mumbled.
-“Yeah, I like Cheetos. “
He opened the sandwich and gave me that look again. Then I said,
-“Turkey and cheese. Multiple cheeses. You like turkey and cheese?”
This time he just shook his head yes and smiled.
He scarfs down the sandwich and starts to munch on an apple. He looks over and gives me that same look again! These were gala apples. Delicious and juicy. I probably ate 7 of them in a span of two days.
-“That’s a good apple isn’t it?”
He smiled and shook his head yes.
As I sat in silence next to this guy, I came to the realization that Anthony was digging in a trash can for food the last two times I saw him. I thought to myself, “Just let the man freaking eat Nathan! He probably hasn’t had a good meal in a long time.” I’m so selfish. He finished up the sack lunch I gave him and I was hesitant to try and strike up conversation again. So after about 3 minutes of silence I decided to ask him,
-“You told me you couldn’t talk earlier. Why is that?” (Expecting him to give me a medical reason)
-“Oh that’s Because I was eatin.”
HA! That is perfect. I am the same way. Relief came over me.
Our conversation continued and I found out that his name is Anthony Coats. He has lived in DC for 32 years. I called the other students and let them know to meet us at specific stop so they could give him this care package. Thankfully they knew their way around the metro! I told Anthony that I had some friends about to get on the train and we got him a pillow and some more food. He was so thankful.
-“If you could have anything right now, what would it be?”
-“A video game.”
That answer put a smile on my face. Of all things, a video game.
-“What console?” I asked.
-“PlayStation 2. Sony. You want my email?”
I wrote his email down in my phone. I was thinking, “How am I gonna email this guy?”
-“What do you do during the week Anthony?”
-“I’ve got a job. Computer programming.”
*silence* I was pretty confused at this point.
I didn’t understand how he was homeless if he had a job.
-“They don’t pay you well enough do they?”
-“No. They don’t.”
- “How often do you work?”
-“Aw the company expired in 2014. I just ride the train all day. Can you call my mom? I just wanna see if she will answer.”
During these periods of silence I saw him mumbling to himself. It was evident that there was something wrong mentally with Anthony. I tried calling his mom. No answer.
-“Can you buy me a cell phone?” He asked.
-“I wish I could Anthony, but I don’t have enough money. I am sorry man.”
I wish I could have. I really do. We sat in silence as I prayed for this man to myself. Then I built up the courage to ask him to the Easter service for Waterfront. I knew that if I could just get him there, the people at that church could clean this man up and help him. THEN, he would also get to hear the gospel of Jesus.
-“You go to church anywhere around here?” I asked.
-“No I don’t. I haven’t been in a while. You recommend anywhere?”
In my mind, I was shouting for joy.
-“Yes I do my friend.”
I gave him the ticket for admission to the stadium to Waterfront’s Easter service. I invited him and told him that if he went, there would be people to help him. Right as I invited him, we stopped and the students got on the train with us.
I introduced them to Anthony. Tate shook his hand. Faith gave him the care package filled with food. He thanked us and began to devour the chips, cookies, and sandwiches that we made for “Big Orange”. I showed him the bible we gave him and he was so thankful.
We sat in silence as he ate. Tears started running down Faith’s cheeks because her heart was broken for this man.
He asked, “Are you okay?” smiling at her.
She shook her head yes and continued to cry.
Our stop approached. We gave him the last couple of dollars we had. I invited him one more time and made him promise me that he would go and promised him that there would be people there to help him. We got off the train. I felt relieved.
It wasn’t the ending I wanted, but then again im not sure how I wanted this encounter to happen. At least I saw him and got to sit with him for a few minutes. People reject him all day every day. I hope he enjoyed some company. The encounter happened exactly the way God wanted it to. Open ended. It is in God’s hands now. This gave Faith a new desire to help the homeless and devote her life to them. She was praying for homeless people everywhere we went and inviting them to church. She had way more boldness than I did.
Success. We found him. We found Anthony, aka Big Orange, and hopefully blessed him and began the first chapter to a new life for him. Running all over DC with the aching feet, chaffed legs, and sore back was worth it. Completely 100% worth the 20 minutes I spent with Anthony Coats.
God chases His children like that. He just wants an encounter with you so He can bless you and watch you feed on what He wants to give you. He places the offer in our court, and the rest is up to us.
Pray for the homeless. Pray for Anthony Coats with me. I hope and pray that I can see him again on earth living a better life. If I don't see him again, I pray that I see him in heaven. I expected to change other peoples lives on this trip, but it looks like Anthony Coats changed mine.