“The Search for Truth is a homeless vagrant who begs for food and gathers enough spare change for malt liquor.”
“Sometimes it's easy to walk by because we know we can't change someone's whole life in a single afternoon. But what we fail to realize it that simple kindness can go a long way toward encouraging someone who is stuck in a desolate place.”
When the students are on break from their studies at the university where I work, the university shuts down most of its services—including the dining halls, which happen to be a place where I enjoy taking my lunch break. It is because of this break in services at the university that I found myself sitting in one of the big city’s finer dining establishments, having a burger and fries. This fast food haven is located on one of the busiest streets in the downtown area of the big city . . . lots of big businesses, civil offices, law enforcement agencies, court houses, bars, hotels . . . the hub of downtown. It is a busy place. There are also a lot of homeless people.
The fast food haven is only about a mile from the campus, so it makes for a quick, cheap, and far from nutritious meal . . . sort of what we used to call rectum rockets back in high school and college. It was convenient . . . especially on a cold wintry day. It was nice to be inside, having a semi-hot meal, out of the cold weather and snow. Apparently lots of folks thought so, too. The place was semi-full with people from around the downtown area, including the homeless. It was a sort of “us” and “them” situation with everyone pretty much minding their own business . . . at least that is what I was trying to do as I scarfed down my cheap meal.
Two booths down from mine, a young woman in typical hospital worker garb—scrubs—sat down to wait for her meal to be brought to her. She was bright eyed, smiling . . . enjoying the day, then suddenly an inebriated guy plopped himself down in the seat opposite her in the booth. He was disheveled, his pants hanging below his buns, dirty, and slurring his speech as he spoke to the woman. The young lady was no longer smiling. Her demeanor went from being carefree to nervous. The drunk attempted to speak to her . . . to talk to her, but she was having none of it. All the while I attempted to divert my eyes from the situation.
Then the young lady disappeared for a second. When she returned she went to another booth in the room . . . far, far away from the drunk sitting in her previous booth. Soon a semi-burly employee showed up at the table with the disheveled drunk, telling him he had to leave the restaurant. “But, I want to buy something to eat,” explained the guy as he stuck his hand in his pants to pull out a hand-full of change . . . that immediately fell out of his pocket and all over the floor. You have to leave, someone complained, said the employee. Now, people were beginning to watch the situation . . . some even left the booths near the situation. But, the drunk was more intent on picking up whatever change had spilled out on the floor . . . mumbling, “I just want something to eat.”
Though it seemed like an eternity, the drunk was escorted out of the restaurant, within a few minutes. The employee stood at the door, where the man fell down, scattering his coins once again, admonishing the guy to get out of there . . . to get off the property. And, the man finally collected his coins and began stumbling across the parking lot. Meanwhile, back in the building, there seem to be a sigh of relief . . . there was no longer the “us” and “them” . . . “them” was escorted out of the house. Through it all, I just sat there.
Yeah, I just sat there. I didn’t want to become involved. I didn’t want to make a scene. I didn’t want people looking at me helping the young lady, and I especially did not want anyone seeing me help the drunk man. So, I just sat there . . . focused on the food in front of me . . . and, sighed when the employee came to deal with the situation. So much for putting in practice what I preach . . .
When did we see you? Remember that question that was asked by those individuals in heaven when Jesus was separating the sheep from the goats? Jesus responded with a whole litany of situations in which the people saw him . . . when they helped the naked, poor, hungry, imprisoned, lost . . . the homeless.
The big city where the university is located is the capital of homelessness in the state of Montana . . . the majority of homeless seem to be located smack dab in this community. In the warmer months they are on the street corners with their signs begging for money . . . and, from a car or truck it is easy to ignore them. In the colder months . . . well, they are more difficult to avoid because they come in. They come into the places where people gather. They come in to avoid the elements . . . to find a little warmth . . . maybe some food. The boundaries, real and imagined, are blurred . . . the “us” and “them” get mixed up . . . and, often the “us” are uncomfortable.
I have always believed that whenever I or anyone else is put into a situation that makes one uncomfortable, that the uncomfortableness needs to be examined. Why? Why is there a feeling of being uncomfortable? What is bringing on these feelings? They need to be examined. Maybe, once the homeless guy was removed, I should have dropped into my pastoral counseling mode, gathered everyone together in the restaurant, and had some group counseling to deal with all the feelings and emotions surrounding the uncomfortableness we had all experienced. But, I already know the answers I would hear from everyone . . .
I doubt if anyone would have mentioned the story of Jesus separating the goats and sheep . . . would have mentioned, when did we see you? I also doubt if anyone would have pointed out that the one individual who would be missing from the group was the homeless man. Where was the homeless guy at our table? Oh, yeah, he was stumbling out the parking lot . . . pants hanging down . . . coat unzipped . . . mumbling to himself . . . looking for some place to call home in the coldness of the winter. I doubt if anyone really cared.
And, that is the rub. I did nothing.
Yeah, I know all the statistics about homeless . . . I know that there are many, many variables that play into homelessness . . . I know that what is seen and experienced by most of us when it comes to homelessness is only the tip of the iceberg, and that it is bigger than most of us even imagine it to be. I have heard all the hard sell stories about homelessness . . . all the pleas for charity to help the homeless . . . and, I know that there are worse stories that are never told or heard. We all have . . . and, when actually confronted by the homeless . . . well, we are uncomfortable. We don’t want to be bothered. We want to look the other way. I think that is the way that most people feel about the homeless . . . we want to look the other way . . . and, we do nothing.
Unfortunately, if I really am a follower of Jesus, this is unacceptable. I should have gone up to the booth where the young lady was sitting when the homeless drunk plopped down across from her . . . introduced myself to both of them . . . started a conversation. Not a conversation so much with the young lady, but with the man. I doubt if it would have made much of difference, but maybe the uncomfortableness could have been avoided. Maybe the guy wouldn’t have been thrown out. Maybe I wouldn’t feel so guilty about having done nothing. Who knows.
John Prine sang a song called Hello in There. The song is not about the homeless, but the elderly. In the chorus of the song, he sings:
So if you're walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes,
Please don't just pass 'em by and stare
As if you didn't care, say, "Hello in there, hello."
Elderly . . . homeless . . . disabled . . . poor . . . borderland people . . . does it matter? Does it matter when “us” don’t want to have anything to do with “them”? As I said, I could have done something . . . started a conversation even though it would have solved none of the man’s problems . . . a conversation that would have acknowledged him as a human being, as a child of God . . . but, I did nothing. Sometimes it is easy to walk by . . . the words echo . . . when did we see you?