Derek Jones - Starting a conversation

I just woke up to the present we live in — the big picture and the little picture, but especially my own reflection.

My whole life, I’ve understood things intellectually and even intuitively, but it’s been less evident what it all means in relation to what I’m doing here. So I’ve decided to reach out and try to find more meaning.

My first priority is my wife, family and friends. But I need to do it more with everyone. I’m not suggesting I’ll try to fix the world, just take more responsibility for all that “is” in my life. Everything.

I’m trying to accomplish the disciplined practice of presence. I want to stop listening to the chatter and start listening to you.

Instead of heading to the gym on a snowy day this year, I decided to take a walk. I wasn’t two blocks from my house when I came across three homeless guys I’d seen many times before.

My first thought was that my previous efforts to connect with them were embarrassing. I would tell myself the next time I saw them, I would go for a real connection. But it never happened. So I went up to them and started a conversation.

Or, perhaps, I should say they started a conversation with me.

Something amazing happened as I listened to their stories. All three shared what brought them to this point in their lives, and through it. I heard a common voice.

Stephen told me of his wife’s death four years ago. I could see the hurt in his eyes as he told me about it. He also told me about brain injuries he had sustained, and how they affected his thought processes. He had dropped his car, his house, his entire life into his grief.

He wasn’t playing me for money — I know what that looks like.

Stephen had more clarity than most people. He was articulate and caring, grateful for this life, and acutely aware of the woes of society. He lives some of those woes every day, and if anyone tells me this guy is not important, then they don’t know what they’re saying.

Then there was Ron.

Ron also had it tough, surrounded by alcoholism and a circle of drug addicts. He had walked away from all that, realizing it would take his life unless he made an escape. He told me of his youth in a series of foster homes after being abandoned as an infant. He said of his experience growing up in foster care, “If God had wanted me to be a punching bag, he would have made me into one.”

Ron had done time in prison, and he claimed it did him zero good. Everything he told me about that made perfect sense. Every day, Ron is trying to beat the prison mentality.

His mantra is, “I’m just grateful to open my eyes every morning,” and he meant it. He is homeless, and it was cold outside in the snow. It was obvious he has been through a lot, but like Stephen, he was thoughtful and polite.

Finally, there was John, my newest Facebook friend.

John’s pain was disquieting at first, but as he opened up to me, his depth and understanding were something to behold. I knew he had something beautiful and important to say, and I pursued the conversation to that end.

He had struggled with a dysfunctional relationship that had broken him, if only temporarily. He is a student of love, like other people I know. He talked about unconditional love and commitment to loved ones. As he spoke, the truth in his eyes and heart rattled me to my soul.

All three of these men are sharp, and all three care deeply. So how is it that people like them end up in a place like this? Where is the community? Where have I been?

These men are valuable contributors. They know which of their peers on the street are problematic or criminally oriented. They know more about the “homeless situation” than I ever could and have a perspective that could help us all.

Do I want their help? Or am I so afraid they will take some of “my precious stuff” that I’m willing to ignore the fact that they are good people with great qualities?

The last person to join this story was Neal, the qigong instructor at my gym who also teaches at the prison. He pulled up as the four of us were talking and offered to take us all out to breakfast.

Neal had zero expectations. He encouraged every one of us to order more and not be shy. He wasn’t gratifying his ego. He was deliberate, relaxed and sweet, matter-of-fact and engaged as if he were talking to old friends. His wife of 50 years had died just a month before, so he, too, was in pain.

Pain was one common thread of this story. But so was kindness.

I know not every situation will turn into the miraculous event that this was for me, but who knows? I’ve never tried at this level.

Perhaps love, when properly nurtured, will help us understand how to genuinely help the worst off among us. Perhaps the broken connections between us won’t allow it. Perhaps we ourselves are the worst among us.

I don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle, but I did just find four of them in Stephen, Ron, John and Neal.

I know more than a few people in the town of McMinnville want to do something about the homeless situation. There have been meetings and ideas about how to make it “go away.”

But can we really make what’s wrong with us go away without dealing with it – with love?


Guest writer Derek Jones, a native Oregonian, has been self-employed as an artist for 25 years. Along with two partners in December, he opened G.R.S. Artisans Boutique on Southeast Baker Street in McMinnville, where he makes glass art. He and his wife, Eve Bennett, moved from Eugene to McMinnville in 2003. They live near Third Street, where its “Main Street” qualities were part of what attracted them to Yamhill County.



Derek, I loved your story and I can relate to the good qualities that you found in the homeless. I volunteer at the Yamhill County Gospel Rescue Mission and my experience echoes yours. What a blessing to walk beside those who have gone through some of the pain of wrong choices and see them learn and grow to use their strengths.


I too volunteer at a homeless shelter. In talking with many of the homeless I have not found one who doesn't freely acknowledge that he or she got there through their own bad choices. Not once have I met anyone who blamed anyone more than themselves. There is a clarity to the thinking of many of them that mainstream humanity may not like to face.

One man told me what he said to a couple of highschool girls sent to interview him as to what causes homelessness. He told them that dropping out of school is the first step.

A great many of the homeless people I meet started out with two strikes against them. Many have alcoholic parents, people who are too consumed with their own issues to have much left over for those who need and deserve their nurturing care. I believe that one huge contributor to the woes we put ourselves through is the lack of mentors. Every child should have at least one person unconditionally on their side.

Mary Starrett

Thank you, Derek.

I am a foster mentor for a Newberg teenager. As I navigate the system and try to keep her on the straight and narrow I am finding that far too many of our foster kids age out of the system, and without any support system or family to fall back on many wind up homeless.
I hope we will all come to see that there is no one reason for homelessness. Each homeless person has a story to share and a reason why they are without a place to call home.

Mary Starrett

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