What he learned from an illiterate homeless man who became a NY Times bestselling author

Last night 45 Better World Books staff, friends, family and fans gathered together at Atlanta’s City of Refuge. We served dinner to the women and children residents and also out on the streets of downtown Atlanta. After an eye-and-heart-opening shared experience, we ate together from the social enterprise kitchen at the shelter and discussed one of my favorite books (and true stories) “Same Kind of Different as Me”. You can view photos from the event on Facebook.

Below is a guest post by Ron Hall, Co-Author of “Same Kind of Different as Me” and “What Difference Do it Make?”

This is the season when most of the world is focused more on giving than receiving, on blessing or helping those who cannot help themselves.  In an excerpt from our book What Difference Do It Make, I’d like to share a story that hopefully will bless you, the reader of this blog,  about serving without judging.

After Denver and I struck up our unlikely friendship at the mission, we had a bargain.  I was going to show him how to get along with the country-club set, and he was going to show me how to get along in the ‘hood.  When Deborah first dragged me down to serve at the mission, my biggest worry was catching a disease or some kind of creepy-crawly infestation.  But after a while, my heart toward the homeless softened up to the point where I actually started going out into the streets with Denver to reach out to the homeless.And yet for all of my brand-new do-gooding, I was still a judgmental varmint.  I wish I could say that “deep down” I was a judgmental varmint.  But no, it was pretty much right there on the surface.

I remember one day in particular when Denver and I went out on the streets surrounding the mission.  I had maybe a couple of hundred bucks in cash, and I’d visit with people, ask how they were doing, and bless them with a few dollars.

It’s important to draw a distinction between “blessing” the homeless and “helping” the homeless.  I used to think I was helping by serving a meal or giving them some clothes, but I found out that for the most part I was just helping myself, making myself feel warm and fuzzy and philanthropic.To be sure, it is a blessing to the homeless when they see people who care.  But to really help, you’ve got to get down in the pit with people and stay with them until they find the strength to get on your shoulders and climb out.  Helping someone is when you find out how to help them move toward wholeness and then hang with them until they make a change.So when Denver and I walked the streets of Fort Worth, it was with the specific intent of bringing blessing.  Of stopping to talk to people who are used to folks crossing streets to avoid talking to them.  Of being a bright smile, a touch of humanity.

It was a crisp, autumn afternoon, and we were heading back toward the mission.  I had already made like Santa Claus and passed out almost all the money I had.  All I had left was a twenty-dollar bill.  Well, we turned a corner and came upon a Hispanic man who looked drunk enough to fry ice cream with his breath.  Probably in his fifties, he looked seventy, with gnarled hands and brown skin wrinkled like a crushed grocery sack.  Wearing smudged jeans and a threadbare flannel shirt of red lumberjack plaid, he lounged so hard against the brick wall of a streetside warehouse that I couldn’t tell whether he was trying to hold himself up or keep the wall from falling down.

Still pretty new to the streets, I pasted on a smile and, with Denver at my shoulder, said to the Hispanic man, “What can I do for you today?”

As the man tried to focus his eyes on me, a thin strand of drool slid from the corner of his mouth and began traveling south.  “I needsh a reedle moony,” she slurred in a heavy Spanish accent.

I didn’t quite catch what he said and asked him to repeat himself.

“He say he needs a little money,” Denver said over my shoulder.I am not giving a drunk a twenty-dollar bill, I thought as I watched the drool reach the Hispanic man’s chin.  Smiling away, I dug into my pants pockets, feeling for smaller change.Finding none, I pulled out the twenty-dollar bill and surreptitiously showed it to Denver.  Glancing back at my mentor in the ‘hood, I tried intently to telegraph a message with my eyes:  If I give him my last twenty, all he’s going to do is go down to the liquor store and buy some more booze!

Suddenly Denver leaned in, and I felt his breath at my ear.  “Don’t judge the man,” he said, low and quiet.  “Just give him the twenty dollars.”

Reluctantly, I held out the money, and the man took it.  Just at that moment, the southbound drop of drool detached itself from his chin and hurtled toward the sidewalk.

“Shank ew,” he said.

I had never stopped smiling, but now my grin felt as fake as a plugged nickel.  I felt like I’d just given a push to a suicide jumper.

Denver and I bid the man good-bye and headed down the street toward the mission.  We hadn’t gone thirty yards when Denver stopped.  “Turn ‘round here and look at me, Mr. Ron.  I wanna tell you something.”

I stopped and faced Denver, and in a way that was becoming familiar to me, he pinned me with one eye while squinting the other like Clint Eastwood.  “That man you just gave that money to – his name is José.  And he ain’t drunk.  He’s a stroke victim.  And he’s one a’ the hardest workin men I ever knowed.”

Denver went on to tell me that before a stroke got him, José had been a bricklayer and a rock mason who worked hard, lived cheap, and sent all him money home to Mexico to support his family.

“He don’t even drink, Mr. Ron,” Denver said.  “He depends on people like you to eat.”

Immediately, I thought of Deborah.  From the moment we set foot in the mission, she had looked beyond the ragged clothes and the scars and the dirt and the smells.  It was as though God had given her X-ray vision to see right past all that to the people underneath.

She never asked them, “How did you get in the shape you’re in?”  Her thinking was, if you condition your offer of help on how a needy person got that way, you’re probably not going to help very many people.  The question Deborah asked was, “What is your need now?”

Now Denver completed his verdict and gave me an ultimatum.  Keeping me pinned with that eyeball, he said, “You know what you did?  You judged a man without knowin his heart.  And I’, gon’ tell you something.  If you gon’ walk these streets with me, you gon’ have to learn how to serve these people without judging ‘em.  Let the judging be up to God.”

What do you think about Ron and Denver’s story? We’d love to hear your thoughts below. Want to participate in the Better World Book Club? Learn more here. Interested in helping put on satellite events when we gather quarterly to learn, serve and discuss together? Email me at elevin@betterworldbooks.com. 

*Note* The above guest post and book excerpt is from award-winner author and activist, Ron Hall. “Same Kind of Different as Me” was our Winter Book Club selection. This content does not necessarily reflect the views of Better World Books (as our lawyers make sure we say). We love having guest bloggers and invite you to email 11@betterworldbooks.com if you are interested in covering a book or topic on the BWB Blog. Thank you, Ron, you inspire and encourage us!



  1. Nora Saneka says:

    Everybody has their own story. If we take time to listen, we are giving them respect – respecting their name, identity and their personhood – and giving them ‘the one thing needful’ – value to their life – from which all else will flow.

  2. It’s kinda funny, seeing this post. I just returned from my monthly stroke support group. Another member, who drives me to the meetings, loaned me the book a couple of years ago. So I understand the issue of perceptions.

    Oh, and we are all in Fort Worth, only a “stone’s throw” from the mission.

    Small world, yes?

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