As I walked to church this morning, I saw him outside the doughnut store, sitting, reading, studying in fact, papers crammed with cramped writing. He looked as if he were studying for an exam. The unusual thing was he was perched on a shopping cart. I could see a clean duffel bag stuffed with what I assumed were his belongings. He leaned his back agains it, reclining a bit atop his shopping card.
Like the Pharisee and the Rabbi in the parable we call the Good Samaritan, I hurried past him. As I continued my walk, I thought of the report I had heard on NRP. People walked right by their husbands, wives, sisters, brothers and even children, not recognizing them because they were dressed as homeless people. I thought too of the time when I had preached at this church at the service preceding the meal prepared and served for the homeless, actually anyone who wanted to eat. Several of us had talked about the fact that almost no one from the congregation joined in eating the meal. And so after the service, I joined those eating. I sat at the table as a young woman served me. I remembered my surprise at being treated as if I were homeless. I remember my guilt as I thought about this. “Wait a minute,” I wanted to scream, “I am not one of them. I am important. I matter.” I was shocked at how much I wanted to distance myself from the others at my table.
Today, I sat through the sermon, listening as the preacher talked of the account of the early church in Acts: how the people worshiped together daily, shared a meal and shared what they had so that there was no one in need among them. I knew if the man was still there at the doughnut shop, I would have to stop and talk with him. I prayed he would have moved on by the time the service was over.
I walked out the side door and around the corner. I breathed a sigh of relief when I didn’t see him, but he was still there, hidden behind a car. I stopped and asked if he would tell me his story. I had not idea how to begin a conversation and had come up this this lame request. He said he’d be glad to if I had the time. He put his glazed yeast doughnut back in the paper bag and nestled it next to his coffee.
He was fairly well dressed in a red polo shirt and slacks. He work a jacket even though the temperature was climbing into the 80s. I noticed one of the lenses was missing from his glasses.
He had, he said, been transferred to Memphis by the IRS. He had no family here. And then Dr. King was assassinated. I didn’t quite follow the story but it seemed he was following leads to the assassin, leads that led to Klansmen with political connections. He had gotten caught up in a conspiracy and a government cover-up. The government owed him money that he never received. He traveled to Chicago where he had friends who would not take him in. He had been injured but the VA refused to treat him. I listened for about half an hour, wondering what I could possibly to do help him, and coming up with absolutely nothing. By his language and demeanor he could have been a lawyer or an IRS agent. There was enough of what I think is reality in what he said, but also a bit of unreality, at least what I think of as unreality.
I have no idea how to help this man, or any other homeless person. It is easy to say it’s a systemic issue and it is. It is also easy to say that you can’t solve a problem by throwing money at it. But you can, or rather, we can. In the 1960s (if I recall the timing correctly) poverty rates among the elderly were appalling. Social security benefits were raised and stories of grandmothers and grandfathers eating cat food for dinner have disappeared.
“And there was no one in need among them.” The early church lived out an ethic of taking care of each other, not just visiting the sick, but making sure everyone had something to eat, a place to sleep. We have lost that. I am as guilty as everyone else of wanting to make sure I have enough, and not just enough but more so that I can do what I want to do.
As I had not solutions for the homeless man, I have no solution for either homelessness or our idea that resources are scarce and we must protect what we have. I only know that this is not God’s vision for the world.