It was so cold outside! I’d used up a fortune in gas, I’m sure, as I warmed up the vehicle before buckling my two precious kiddo cargo into their car seats and getting settled in to go to work and daycare.

It was business as usual for me — a Veggie Tales video on in the background, my thoughts racing with the massive to-do list swirling in my head for the day, pointing out the beautiful things outside for my kids to take in, and enjoying the chance to sit for a minute in the presence of my children. While watching the people around me in their warm cars in a mad dash to get to work, absorbed in their thoughts, and oblivious to others, a smell of smoke caught my attention.

I love the smell of a good wood fire, but this one piqued my interest as it came from an extremely odd location. Up through the gap in the barriers on the interstate floated a waft of smoke so out of place and forlorn that it caused me to wonder where it came from.

I live in Huntsville, Alabama. It is a beautiful city, known as the City of Progress and home to an extremely high percentage of engineers and professionals. NASA and the Army are a part of our town, and contracting companies surround you everywhere you go in support of these two major government programs. Huntsville’s skyline is perhaps most recognized by the rockets standing at attention against a backdrop of evergreen trees next to the NASA’s Space and Rocket Museum. The grass and trees are impeccably landscaped around the city, and the fall is extremely gorgeous with beautiful oranges, reds and yellows peppering the valley. People who call Huntsville enjoy it as a great place to live and to raise a family.

But that waft of smoke rising through the center barriers of the highway on an abnormally and frigidly cold November day spoke of something else.

Below our city’s beautiful exterior, hidden from every angle so that no one would ever know they exist, is the City of Tents. Sanctioned by the City of Progress as a legitimate place for people in need of somewhere to squat, it serves as an overflow for the burdened system that tries to keep up with the homeless and jobless in Huntsville.

Men, women and children find refuge there. Old, discarded and broken furniture are arranged neatly outside of tents — homes — where all of the residents’ earthly possessions are organized. Local businesses provide water from their hosed faucets for the occasional bath and daily drink. Local churches, food banks and missions provide enough meals to keep them fed most days.

There are some who are hopeful things will change, while others are resigned to the life they are living. The line between the optimist and the pessimist is tangible. These people have been broken and beaten by life, and they have come together to try to survive. They have formed their own little community. The Bible, to some, is a constant source of comfort and encouragement — their daily bread.

If you went to look, the images you’d find below the highway might break your heart, or they might put you off — depending on your point of view— but the truth of the matter is that there are people hurting down there. Whatever the reason, we do not know. We are not called to judge them for the circumstances that may have brought them their struggles; we are called to love the hurting.

That little waft of smoke helped to jolt me out of my daily routine and remind me that I need to break out of my comfort zone and look below the surface to see who is there I might help. Even if it is just in my own life, with people I know, I can never judge a situation by what is showing on the outside.

Lord, help us all pay attention to the little wafts of smoke in our own lives. May we bless You by blessing others.