Updated: Feb 29
I have been reflecting on how to kick off the New Year and new decade with writing as if it really mattered. It just appears to be weighty… sort of sacred. I believe every new beginning is sacred, like a new birth, new marriage, new career, new project, and a new year.
What gets my attention on a given day, a given season of my life is what I choose to reflect and write about. Yet, this morning something caught my attention and made me feel uncomfortable. Most likely because I cannot fix it or make a significant difference to enhance the lives of those involved. I was drawn back to my experience with a few homeless guys yesterday.
While I sat in my car yesterday awaiting my turn at the local carwash on a cold and dreary January day I noticed the carwash attendant shooing off a man dressed oddly and meandering through the cars. The meanderer had on oversized unlaced work boots and an old tattered camel-colored wool overcoat once worn over a suit, I imagine. He also had on an odd wool cap with flaps over his ears. He was non-conforming to my carwash friends as I am sure he wasn’t there to wash his car. I don't think he owned a car. What got my attention was not his clothes as much as his actions.
This unknown man, unknown to me and I am sure most in my community, was reluctant to follow the promptings of the carwash attendant. He took his time making his way off of the property as if he was intent on finding something. He shuffled in circles it seemed, maybe he was drunk. He kept turning back to the multitude of cars sitting in line waiting for their $10-$20 carwashes and would put his hand to his mouth signaling something. He did this 2-3 times before he disappeared from my sight. Was he trying to communicate to all of us that he was hungry? I believe he was doing just that.
Now what? I felt uncomfortable, sad, and hopeless, not to forget agitated. He was acting like an animal. I thought I lived in a civilized society in small-town Central Missouri. What was he thinking?
I’ll most likely never know what he was thinking because I didn’t bother to ask. It was cold outside and I didn’t want to lose my place in line. I chose anyway to ponder what I was thinking and witnessing…a desperately hungry man, a wild man? The carwash connected to the parking lot of a McDonald’s restaurant. We could all smell the grilling of hamburgers and fresh french-fries. I watched the unknown man step off the parking lot to the next property where an 18 wheeler was parked. He knocked on the driver’s window and door, no one answered. The driver may have been taking an afternoon nap. Then the wild man disappeared from my view…forever.
Now what? I did nothing to help this man with his hunger, but I did not forget him. I was immediately reminded of another encounter I had earlier that same day. I was walking downtown to a local restaurant to celebrate my birthday lunch with my sisters and mother. It was a leisure stroll of about a mile but I had my warm coat, gloves, and scarf on. As I strolled past familiar merchants, alleyways and street corners I heard shouting. I listened more intently and realized it was actually singing, loud singing coming from a block over. I did a double-take and made my way to walk past these people, and I knew they were most likely homeless. We have a fairly large population of homeless in our community as I am sure most urban settings do these days.
Why did I turn and take this route instead of staying on the route I always take? I am not sure, I was just compelled to encounter these guys and engage in conversation. Yes, I assessed they were men as their voices were low and manly sounding. I know you may think me reckless. This is ok. I have been having these types of conversations with the homeless for many years now and usually, they are with men and sometimes their female partner. I feel wild and reckless sometimes...a lot of times actually.
As I walked by these three men singing at the top of their voices sitting at the street corner I looked directly at them and said, “What's the special occasion?” Soon one of the gentlemen, the one in a wheelchair with one-half leg, engaged me with winking and cat type calling that finally led to a normal conversation. He asked me for money, I said I didn’t have any to give him but I did mention a few local non-profits that had resources available. I remember telling this guy that one of the local non-profits had everything he needed. In retrospect, I was skirting his attention away from "my money" in my wallet. As we chatted a little more we realized we were both from the same hometown of St. Louis.
What got my attention was his teeth. He had his upper and lower front 4 teeth missing and I don’t think he had access to dental care…ever. The color of his teeth surprised me. I had never seen another human being with teeth that color of yellow. It was a repulsive color for teeth. It reminded me of the monkey’s teeth at the St. Louis zoo. I am not trying to be funny or disparaging here. I honestly feel quite strange telling you this. But it is true.
Both of these encounters with unknown men reminded me of animals. Why? They truly weren’t animals. These were my brothers created in the image and likeness of God. No, these men are not animals, they are just living like animals.
Jesus…what do you want me to do with the memories of my brothers? Help me to listen more deeply…to see more clearly and consider your heart on this matter of homelessness all around me. Show me what your heart looks like and how your love works, but especially help me not to turn away in despair…though I feel this heaviness of despair in my heart.