Embracing the Smudges: 3 Life Lessons from the Heart of the Tenderloin

Updated: Sep 21, 2019

(Below is an excerpt of a blog post published in LinkedIn. Read the post in full here.)


“Can I draw you?” asked Nelsonnea.

I met him last year just blocks from the shiny towers of tech in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. The Tenderloin is one square mile of poverty in the heart of San Francisco. It's home to 3000 children and the thoroughfare for 7000 men and women experiencing homelessness. And it's where I learned 3 life-changing lessons in an unforgettable encounter.



My colleague TJ and I had just wrapped up a prayer meeting with customers at Dreamforce, Salesforce's huge user conference. Work had been especially busy that month, and it was rejuvenating to see TJ again and pray with customers from around the world.


As we cleaned up and prepared for the flurry of presentations ahead of us, we noticed a basket of extra muffins. What to do with them? We looked at the clock and realized we would have just enough time before our next meeting. So...off to the Tenderloin.


The streets transform quickly in San Francisco. Within blocks from glistening downtown, garbage fills the streets, cardboard shelters dot the sidewalks, and sirens penetrate the air. Someone is always screaming somewhere.


Previous volunteer events had taught us how to interact with the homeless community. We knew firsthand that they were just like any of us, wanting dignity, respect, and conversation. We were prepared, but also aware of the dangers. Earlier this year, I was attacked by a pit bull while doing this work...I have learned to be on high alert.


Against the wall of a building, TJ and I noticed two men and felt drawn to them. We approached, introduced ourselves, and offered the muffins. Their names were Nelsonnea and Clifford. They were so pleased that we had walked all this way just to talk to them. Within minutes, they began to share their storiestheir wrong turns, their dreams for the future. We listened and offered our prayers.


That's when I noticed a folder in Nelsonnea's hands and asked about it. "I draw," he said, shyly at first, then opened it to reveal page after page of beautiful sketches. Portraits of police officers, drug addicts, tech workers, children. "These are the people I meet along the streets," he explained. "I try to capture their hearts."

And then he asked:


As we cleaned up and prepared for the flurry of presentations ahead of us, we noticed a basket of extra muffins. What to do with them? We looked at the clock and realized we would have just enough time before our next meeting. So...off to the Tenderloin.

The streets transform quickly in San Francisco. Just blocks from glistening downtown, garbage fills the gutters. Tents and cardboard shelters dot the sidewalks. Outbursts and sirens fill the air in all directions.


Talking to homeless communities on our lunch break

Previous volunteer events had taught us how to interact with the homeless community. We knew firsthand that they were just like any of us, wanting dignity, respect, and conversation. We were prepared, but also aware of the dangers. Earlier this year, I was attacked by a pit bull while doing this work...I have learned to be on high alert.


Against the wall of a building, TJ and I noticed two men sitting on the sidewalk and felt instantly drawn to them. We introduced ourselves, struck up a conversation, and offered the muffins. Their names were Nelsonnea and Clifford, and they were shocked that we had walked all this way just to talk to them. Within minutes, they began to share their stories of wrong turns and hope for the future. We listened and offered our prayers.


That's when I noticed a folder in Nelsonnea's hands and asked about it. "I draw," he said, shyly at first, then opened it to reveal page after page of beautiful sketches. Portraits.


"These are the people I meet along the streets," he explained. "I try to capture who they are." And then he asked:

"Can I draw you?"....

Click HERE to see Nelsonnea's drawing and read the full post.


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