Who Was this Unexpected Man to Powerfully Impact His Community?
In our last blog before Christmas, we take a break from international shipping to focus on the people around us. In particular, a man who made such an impact on the community of Lawndale, a small city in the greater Los Angeles area, that community members came together to raise money to erect a plaque in the man’s honor.
A Daily Breeze article by Sandy Mazza about the man said that people actually wondered if he “was an angel — or like the Buddha when he gave up his life as a royal prince, or Jesus when he traveled ministering to the public.”
What incredible public figure could be so loved to inspire comparisons to angels, the Buddha, and Jesus Christ? The answer would probably surprise most people.
The person that inspired such love from the people of Lawndale was a man called Mike, who quietly lived on Hawthorne Boulevard between 165th and 166th streets for about 30 years. He was a homeless man.
At age 56, Gerardo Michael Juarez—Mike’s full name—died near the curb where he lived.
Afterward, according to the Daily Breeze article, more than 2,000 people signed a change.org petition to erect a plaque in Mike’s honor and, according to another Daily Breeze article by Mazza, more than one hundred people gathered for a vigil, leaving flowers and notes at his camp in front of the USA Gasoline Station.
Mazza wrote that it was when Mike didn’t come into the gas station for his morning coffee that worried workers at the station found him dead, “lying over the large decorative rocks separating the station from the sidewalk. Deputies said his sister was notified of his death…”
That sister is Universal Cargo’s Executive Coordinator, Finance Gina Jackson.
“I tried to get him to come home with me,” Gina said of her brother, “but he would not even budge. He would just say, ‘I am okay.'”
The way Gina describes her older brother and hero as a kid, there’s no way anyone could have predicted he would end up living on the street.
“Growing up I can still remember Michael’s smile…. you could see it in his eyes. He always smiled with his eyes…. I still remember Michael being the coolest brother ever! He was a risk taker, a great athlete, quick on his feet, and he exemplified leadership qualities that were far above his peers.
“… he would ride his bike… get some momentum and before you knew it, Michael was standing on his seat with his arms to the sky with a HUGE grin on his face just having a blast! Michael was always taking a risk… he was very smart, and no one messed with Michael growing up. He played football… and his skills were undeniable… he was truly amazing at it because he was so quick and had no fear….
“Michael was a leader and a world changer who had the biggest heart and wanted the best for everyone. He didn’t put up with bullies nor was he a man that would take advantage of you; he was a man of loyalty and love, but one wrong decision in his life and being at the wrong place at the wrong time altered the course of his life forever….”
For the Lawndale community, why Mike was camped on Hawthorne in front of the gas station was a mystery. According to Mazza’s articles there were stories people created to explain Mike’s presence there, including him secretly being a millionaire with a home on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, having lost his family in a tragic car accident, and being a Vietnam War vet who came home scarred with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Mike’s best friend growing up, Dennis Rigdon, helps dispel these myths that become something of a legend surrounding Mike:
“Sometime during Freshman/Sophomore year at Hawthorne High, he moved to Hawaii to live with his mom.
“The next time I saw him, a few years later, he was not the same Mike. His brain had clearly been scrambled. When asked about what happened in Hawaii, his only response would be “bad drugs” as he shook his head. He never served in the military as you’ve been told. And was definitely way too young to have fought in Vietnam. It’s possible that he had some type of PTSD, but it wasn’t from the war.
“He never married or had a family to lose.”
While Dennis wanted to clear away all the false stories about Mike, he would probably also want to make it clear that Mike wouldn’t have just thrown his life away on drugs either. Mazza quotes Dennis as saying about Mike, “I heard from a guy who stayed in touch with him that someone slipped him bad acid in Hawaii. Mike was not a drug guy.”
Unfortunately, even that story is hearsay, and nobody seems to know exactly what happened to Mike in Hawaii. However, Dennis is right about Mike not being a drug guy.
Gina said Mike didn’t want to take the medication his parents tried to give him for the chronic and worsening mental illness Mike was suffering from after his return from Hawaii because the medication made him feel weird.
“… as I got older,” Gina said, “he got worse, and he simply forgot who I was… I would politely remind him, but he just gave me a grunt and smiled with his eyes and just let me do the talking because now Michael was a man of few words.”
It wasn’t only his family members Mike couldn’t remember but his friends also.
“He was one of the last people I saw before shipping off to Basic Training myself in 1980,” Dennis said. “At that time, Mike was having a real hard time finding a place in productive society. I lost track of him after that for the next 10-15 years.
“When I found him again, he was living at his spot on Hawthorne Blvd and 166th. I would stop to talk to him whenever I was in the area, always hoping that seeing me, his best childhood friend, would make him snap out of it. Sadly, most times he acted like he couldn’t remember me.
“One time, my sister Dawn and I stopped to visit him. He lit up when we started talking about the old football playing days. But, sadly, he quickly went back into his shell.”
Amazingly, even in his shell, Mike managed to brighten the lives of the people of the Lawndale community and bring out the best in them. By all accounts, Mike rarely spoke and didn’t beg. However, people from the community would still give him food, clothing, and blankets.
“He initiated something in us to give,” Linda Birmingham was quoted as saying in Mazza’s article about Mike’s vigil. “He awakened something in each of us, a humanitarian kind of emotion. He never stood outside with a sign asking for help. I was taken by his helplessness and innocence.”
Perhaps it was those eyes that Gina described Mike smiling with that moved people so. A couple people Mazza quoted in that article mentioned his eyes:
Maritza Hernandez was quoted as saying, “I’d tell him my problems, like my boyfriend was mad at me. He’d listen but never say anything. I’d tell him, ‘You have the most beautiful blue eyes,’ and he’d smile a little bit. I love him.”
Annette Hudson was quoted as saying, “I would bring him Christmas treats and rotisserie chicken. He would never say a word. He would just look at me with his eyes, as if to say: ‘Thank you.’ ”
Many people never look at a homeless person twice or avoid looking at them altogether. However, looking at Mike made community members gather together and musicians—including Gina Jackson in a worship band—play for a luncheon and fundraiser to finance erecting a plaque in one homeless man’s honor.
Nearly $2,000 of the $3,000 it will take to erect the plaque has been raised on gofundme.com.
The story shines a spotlight on the homelessness problem in Los Angeles county. According to the BBC, there are 57,794 homeless people in L.A. County, a 23% increase from 2016.
But in any city, there are homeless people. If we all took a moment to look at one, being generous with a little food, clothing, a blanket, or just our time, we may find ourselves feeling like so many in the Lawndale community who met Mike—like we’ve just met an angel.
There’s an old biblical verse, Hebrews 13:2, which reads, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
Mike was repeatedly called or compared to an angel in Mazza’s articles.
“We had no idea that [Mike] touched so many lives,” Gina said. “Words cannot express how grateful my mom and I are after all the wonderful things that were said about Michael… [He] became an Angel to a city and still continued to bring out the best in everyone. It’s funny, even though he didn’t do it in a conventional way, he still became a world changer!”