On Monday, May 7th I had the warm privilege of meeting and helping one of Minneapolis’ finest citizen’s, Eddie Elex. I walked out of the Gaviidae building that morning for a short break around 10 am and exited from the Nicolette Mall entrance on the first floor. Taking in a brief moment of sunshine & fresh air, I was suddenly approached by a stocky built older gentleman wearing a jean jacket whose hair was the color of wisdom. Although he is an African American, the tone of his skin looked worn and weary, as though he was no stranger to many years of hardship & suffering. With a gentle voice of humility the man asked me if I could help him with some cash. I told him I only carry plastic. Within an instant the man became totally incapable of concealing his pain. Suddenly, he looked to his left (northbound on Nicollet) and to his right (southbound) and asked me with tears in his eyes, “Where am I to go?” I asked his name and he told me Eddie. I asked if he was homeless and he said yes, but staying at the Salvation Army. I asked if he was from Minnesota and he informed me that he was originally from Chicago, but came to the Twin Cities from the Quad Cities where he had to go through drug treatment. At this point Eddie’s emotions got increasingly low as I could tell he was feeling a sense of shame, pain (the expression of pain on his face was most obvious which galvanized the highest level of “authentic” empathy I’ve ever experienced) and slight confusion as to why we were still talking.
Suddenly, with a voice of irritation and frustration Eddie retorts, “Why would I tell you my story… you don’t want to hear my story; why would you waste your time listening to someone like me?” At this point the frustration and pain increased within him to the point that tears started to run down both sides of his checks. It was at this juncture that I informed him I was a Pastor (never needed to be a Pastor to display empathy, or kindness—I simply told him my occupation to establish trust). After recognizing I was a “minister,” as he called me, Eddie lowered his guard but was still totally incapable of concealing his abject pain.
Eddie informed me that he was 67 years old and homeless: that he’s been unable to take care of himself since stumbling over extreme alcoholism during early childhood (15 to be exact); he has no relatives in Minnesota, and the relatives he does have gave up on him many years ago, capsizing its final debacle when members of his immediate family robbed him; he grew up on the streets of south Chicago, where his lifestyle unfortunately earned him four trips to State Penitentiary (State prison in Illinois). He also added the fact that his physical body was failing him on a daily basis, and that his mind was quickly doing the same. The entire time we spent talking, Eddie would start talking and then stop abruptly. He did this to make any and every effort possible to exhibit some form of self-control to keep himself from completely breaking down and crying. When he finished talking I wanted to inquire about his living conditions with the hope that he was (possibly) on the waiting list for housing. He was not! At this point, Eddie mentions the one thing that would be the last drop that would cause my vessel of social and pastoral consciousness to overflow. Eddie wasn’t on a housing waiting list because of the combination of his criminal background (even though it was over 20 years old), and his inability to keep up with the necessary amount of paperwork required to even have a chance to gain access to public housing. In his own words, “Nothing has ever worked for me. I know I’ve made bad choices in my life, I know I don’t have an education, I know I should have worked harder, but I’ve never ever had much to work with. Every corner I turn there’s been opposition to progress my entire life—NOTHING EVER WORKS FOR ME!” Finally, Eddie surrenders to what appeared to be an overwhelming sense of shame, and indeed he broke down right there before me as though defeated in self-pity. In fact, as one casting off all remainders of hope and possibly throwing in the towel (no exaggeration to these details).
I suddenly remembered that Eddie was old enough to qualify for a YMCA SilverSneakers membership. I quickly unveiled my hoodie to expose my Y uniform, thereby explaining to Eddie that I worked for the YMCA and I might be able to help him. I asked if he knew where the Y was. He said no. I asked if he had health insurance. He said yes—MNsure, Medica, and UCare. I gently asked if he had a few minutes to spare while getting him set-up with a membership. When we made it to the third floor desk I asked our outstanding team member Brian if he could look into Eddie’s eligibility for SilverSneakers. I asked Eddie if he’d like a cup of coffee while waiting and he took me up on the offer. I returned to the desk 10 minutes later to discover the bad news that Eddie needed to contact his insurance company to find out his eligibility. I asked if he had a phone and he replied, no. I asked if he had a way to contact his insurance company and that prompted another no. I decided to start making the calls myself remembering Eddie’s declaration that nothing works out for him. I contacted UCare who, after 15 minutes of finding Eddie in the system with much litigation, came to the conclusion that he was indeed in the system, but there was a wrong birthdate and overdue scheduled paperwork (on their end). She explained that all I needed to do was call SilverSneakers to ask why he’s not on the list. When I called SilverSneakers, I worked with a gal named Michelle. Michelle informed me that I needed to contact the insurance company to find out why he wasn’t on the “eligible list.” When I explained to her that they sent me to them, I could tell by her tone she was becoming as frustrated and impatient as I now was. Suddenly it occurred to me that perhaps Eddie was right; perhaps nothing does work for him and I’m just wasting my time.
It was at this point that I decided to share the whole story with Michelle, including who I am, how Eddie and I met and how important it was to try to restore hopelessness with a little more effort. Finally, Michelle did find that he was insured through UCare, but was confused on why he wasn’t added to the list. Michelle mentioned that he needed a 16-digit code and that she was taking action to create it. After spending a total of 28 minutes between the two companies, Michelle finally produced a 16-digit code for my friend Eddie. Immediately after writing it down I went into the Innovation Centre (the breakroom beside it) and found myself crying from joy. Consequently, I realized I forgot that Michelle was still on the other end of the phone. When I returned to the call, with a cracked and slightly hyperventilated voice, I acknowledged that our conversation wasn’t finished and I began to thank her for helping to see this through—only to discover through her response that she was also losing the battle of holding back tears. After thanking her, she assured me that a meaningful moment, like we shared in helping Eddie, was something she’ll always be grateful for giving her the opportunity to assist us. It made her day to say the least.
Even though I had the 16-digit code I stalled in returning as hastily as I should have. I desperately needed to regain my composure (and to thank God). After informing our staff (Brian) that I had the code, Eddie found himself to be the newest member our YMCA. It was an awesome privilege and honor to take him on a tour—one of the most detailed tours I had given in the 13 years I worked for the Y. While showing Eddie around, I insisted that as a new member, “these things (workout equipment, etc.) belonged to you like every other member.” With every step I could see that Eddie’s hope was being restored. I showed the locker room and free towel service; I showed him exactly how to use our lockers; I took him to the pool were he mentioned, “I’m afraid of water,” but I insisted he follow me anyway so he could see the sauna. He was astounded by how nice everything was. He mentioned that he’s never been a part of anything like what the Y was offering him. Eddie was no longer the heartbroken man I knew an hour ago. I walked Eddie to the very top of the steps where he informed me that I’ll never know what this meant to him and how excited he is to get started. Again, he was crying, but, this time he was in full control of himself (tears of joy, not sorrow).
I ended my shift by riding the light rail from Nicollet to the Midway in St. Paul. Glad I was wearing shades—crying almost all the way. Not sure I’ll ever see Eddie again but this experience reminded me to be prepared at all times if I can help. Eddie was able to take full advantage of the resources I had access to but have probably taken for granted on how to use all of them more effectively. Nonetheless, I’ve concluded that I couldn’t have possibly helped Eddie more than he helped me. It was the first time I felt like a complete human being! It was the 1st time (in 13 years) that I gave a YMCA tour with such pride, confidence, and humility acknowledging the fact that I’m a part of a meaningful mission that’s being fulfilled, one way or another, on a daily basis.
Troy D. Wilson, Ambassador of Christ
Building Supervisor, DT Mpls YMCA