Song For The Houseless

By: Kevin Tamer

Michael Gienger could have done what everyone else usually does. He could have frantically locked his car doors. He could have pretended to be on his cell phone or merely looked the other way in order to avoid eye contact. He could have just kept driving. But instead, when Gienger saw Charles “Chuck” Wayne Rose, he stopped.

Rose is a 53-year-old former carpenter, who has been living on the streets of Waco for the past three years.

Gienger was on his way to H-E-B one Monday when he spotted Rose sitting on a curb. He had planned on making jambalaya for dinner that night and needed to pick up some groceries from the store.  Gienger can’t describe what exactly prompted him to pull over, or why he decided to get out of his car and approach this stranger on the sidewalk. However, this simple introduction changed Gienger’s dinner plans that night – and sparked the beginning of an unlikely friendship.

While it might have perplexed passing viewers to see this Baylor student and homeless man engaging in a conversation on the side of the road, Gienger said there was nothing awkward or uncomfortable about it. After exchanging small talk for a little while, Gienger learned that Rose was an educated man who has worked just about every job in the carpentry business. However, his life began to spiral downward after his wife and unborn baby were killed in a car accident while driving the family car he had recently been performing maintenance on. Health problems and a shaky economy followed, and Rose was forced to move to the streets.

Gienger’s most vivid memory of their first meeting came when Rose interrupted him during their conversation and began yelling at a fellow homeless man across the street. It was mid-January at the time, and this man was wearing no shoes.

“What are you doing with no shoes on?” Rose yelled. “Man, get over here.”

Rose proceeded to take the shoes off his own feet and give them to this man. He then reached into his shopping cart and handed him extra blankets and socks.

“My mouth was basically on the ground at this point,” Gienger recalled. “I was like, ‘Chuck, why did you do that? You don’t know him.’ And he responded by saying, ‘What would Jesus do?’ I was blown away.”

Gienger quickly learned that despite everything that had been taken away from Rose’s life, he never lost his faith. His positive attitude was contagious and his generosity was something Gienger wanted to mirror. Shortly after, Gienger went into H-E-B as planned. He left with the groceries he needed as planned. He made jambalaya for dinner as planned. However, he didn’t eat alone that night, and neither did Rose.

That Monday, two years ago, marked the beginning of a weekly dinner meeting between Rose and Gienger. From that point, Rose began to come over to Gienger’s house on a weekly basis. The two would share a meal, hang out, and Gienger let Rose do his laundry and shower. During this time, they found a common bond in their love for music. Gienger, who played in a band in high school and writes songs in his spare time, reintroduced Rose to an old hobby of his – playing the guitar. The two spent hours “jamming out,” as they would say, and Gienger eventually gave Rose one of his guitars to keep. They were able to take their music out into the streets, where together they would occasionally sing and play worship songs on the porch of Gospel Café, which is a renovated house on 10th Street and Cleveland Avenue that offers free meals every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Having spent time with Rose, Gienger began to develop a passion for homeless ministries. He became a weekly attendee of Church Under the Bridge, a service provided by Mission Waco under I-35 on 4th Street, and got to know other members of the homeless community on a more personal level.

“The homeless community is not made up of lazy, uneducated drug addicts,” he said. “Behind the unkempt appearances are real people with real struggles, just like you and me. As you begin to form meaningful relationships, you get to know the faces of these fellow strugglers and begin to see real change.”

Over time he began to develop a sense of understanding into the lives of the homeless, but he knew his point of view was still skewed.  While Gienger could relate to the feeling of hunger, he’d never had to beg for food.  And even though he knew their stories, he couldn’t really relate to their daily struggles. Such a curiosity and passion to help led Gienger to do what many would consider unthinkable. Gienger joined Rose on the streets of Waco on two separate weekends.

Rose was hesitant at first to say yes to Gienger’s request. Having lived on the streets, Rose had seen firsthand the risks and dangers each day presented.

“It can be very dangerous out here,” Rose said. “I’ve been beaten up for 16 cents once. Another time I was just walking down the street and two guys beat me up with 2-by-4s. I broke my pelvis and spent a month in the hospital.”

Gienger’s mother, Joyce Ratliff, was initially worried about the idea,  but she trusted God would protect him.

“When [he] first shared with me that he was going to be ‘homeless’ for a weekend, all of my mother instincts were frightened,” Ratliff said. “This feeling quickly turned into one of peace, however, as I realized God would not send [him] somewhere that He wouldn’t protect him. I turned it over to Him and said many prayers that weekend.”

On Friday, Oct. 16, 2009, Gienger left his wallet, car keys and cell phone at home and spent his Fall break on the streets of Waco with Rose. That day, the two met at H-E-B on Speight Avenue. and walked two miles to eat a free meal at Antioch Community Church’s Friday Night Feast.  After dinner, they made their way back to Rose’s camp, which at the time was an abandoned car wash off 13th Street. and Clay Avenue. Rose remembers Gienger’s first night as being especially cold.

“I tend to have a habit of waking up in the middle of the night,” Rose said. “That night I got up and checked on [him]. He was sleeping on a blanket on the ground.  He was shivering real bad, so I went out there and covered him up with a blanket. I still laugh at him about it.”

With no free meals available on Saturday, Gienger and Rose spent the whole day in and out of Dumpsters searching for food and collecting cans. They found a package of tortillas at the bottom of a Dumpster and proceeded to eat them for lunch. However, Gienger admits it was by far the most disgusting thing he has ever eaten in his life. Fortunately, a generous college student approached them and gave them his meal from Rosa’s Cafe.

The rest of the day consisted of collecting cans. The two walked approximately 15 miles rummaging through trashcans and Dumpsters. While they did not carry their guitars with them, the music on the radio provided a source of inspiration and opportunity to talk about their love for music.

By the end of the weekend, they had collected almost 32 pounds of cans. Gienger really began to notice that day the perceptions many people have of the homeless.

“I don’t look like a homeless person, but the looks people gave me when I was in and out the Dumpsters,” he said. “It was very, very degrading.”

Gienger learned many of the homeless out there do not like the term “homeless.” They would rather be called “houseless” because while they are without houses in the physical sense, they are not without family structure, community and generosity of a home.

“If you give a homeless man a meal, he is more than likely going to find a friend to share it with,” he said. “The generosity and family structure within the homeless community is unlike anything else. They share and look out for each other despite having so little.”

Gienger recalls a moment on his second trip with Rose this past September. It was midnight and Gienger went out looking for food.  He ran into one of his friends, Frank, who also lives on the streets.

“He asked me what I was doing out here and I told him I was looking for food,” Gienger said. “He immediately reached into his pocket and gave me a dollar, but I noticed he only had four dollars. I told him to keep it because I was only going to be out there for a couple days, but he insisted I take it. I realized, when you go and struggle with these people, you get a new taste for yourself.  As much as the poor need us, we need the poor in our lives to learn what it means to give.”

Gienger made it back home safely after both trips and is still actively involved in the homeless community and Rose’s life. Gienger continues to write songs and has derived a great deal of inspiration from his experiences on the streets.

“I’ve written several songs based on the experiences and relationships I’ve developed with the houseless of Waco,” Gienger said. “The lives of these incredible individuals inspire me daily and make for powerful stories to be told through song. It would be selfish of me to keep these experiences to myself, so I put them into song to share.”

While Rose is still homeless, he is not without a friend. He remains hopeful he will get his life back on track in the near future.

“It’s weird how it works,” he said. “God doesn’t give us what we want, but he gives us what we need. I can have good days and I can have bad days. When I’m having bad days, something will happen though. Like the day he put [Gienger] in my life.”