Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bread for the Journey

I am convinced that sometimes Jesus dresses up like a homeless person and goes around to his churches to check on how we’re doing. So I always try to pay attention to any homeless person I’m around. I try to be attentive but not a suck-up. I’m pretty sure Jesus can spot a suck-up a mile away.

I first met Terry about a week after I arrived at the PDA camp in New Orleans. I got there the day after the last manager went home. The previous manager left me a whole sheet of instructions on when the dumpster gets emptied, computer passwords, and helpful hints like that. At the bottom of the list was a note about a homeless guy who came around about once a week or so. Spencer didn’t tell me much more about him, other than that he was pretty harmless and just needed a sandwich once in a while. But the note didn’t tell me the guy’s name.

So the day I looked out the window and saw a skinny black man in dreadlocks walking to the door I had an idea that who he was and one of the first things I asked him was his name. After telling me his name he went on to say that he’s a house painter by trade but can’t find any work. He said he lives in a van parked in his sister’s driveway near the camp. I think later her told me the house is Katrina damaged and the sister hadn’t come back yet. I tried to believe this story and was pretty successful at it most of the time.

He wasn’t the first homeless person I’ve met in my life. If I said some of my best friends are homeless it would be pretty accurate. My best friend in high school ended up homeless. But that’s a story for another day.

For years we’ve had a homeless guy who roamed around the town in Garland. I would see him at the bank where I worked or he might come by our church to look through the trash. As a bank employee I knew that he was the beneficiary of a trust fund set up by his family when they realized his mental illness would trap him in this life. He didn’t interact with people very much and I don’t know of anyone who ever had an actual conversation with him. But he got around enough that pretty much everybody in town knew him by name. Every once in a while someone will still ask if they’ve seen Leo and usually somebody has.

Then there was Mitchell. He was a homeless guy our church worked with for over a year. He would come around on Sunday mornings for a bite to eat and a nap on the back pew. It was interesting to watch the many different reactions the congregation had to him. Sometimes we would put him up in a motel if the weather was bad. The story ended badly with the church eventually asking him to move on. But we gave it our best effort. If Jesus was checking us out we probably got a pretty solid “C”. We weren’t great but we weren’t horrible.

By the time I had to evacuate the camp for Hurricane Gustav I guess I’d seen Terry three or four times. He didn’t come every day but when he did come he was obviously hungry. He didn’t mince words but was polite in his request for something to eat. We had become pretty comfortable with each other by then. I knew he didn’t like peanut butter but didn’t care at all whether he had mustard or mayonnaise on his ham sandwich. I knew he preferred water to fruit drinks but what he really appreciated was having ice in his water. For the first couple of visits he told me the same story about not being able to find work. And I knew he had horror stories from being in New Orleans during Katrina. I had to wonder how much damage Katrina had done to his mind. He told me that it changed him.

When I got a call from the boss to evacuate all I had to do was follow the detailed instructions in the village manager’s notebook. One of the things on the list besides packing up all the office equipment and files was to pack up the food. This sounds pretty easy until you realize our camp had three refrigerators and three big freezers.

I could leave the staples in the pantry but I had to pack up all the frozen food and go through the refrigerators item by item. Keep or throw? Keep or throw? At the time I wasn’t sure exactly what we were going to do with the stuff I kept. It turned out that we packed an entire freezer in a Budget Rent-a-truck and put the refrigerated stuff in coolers full of ice. But I didn’t know it at the time and was having a hard time deciding on the refrigerated foods.

While I was elbow deep in the salad dressings Terry came by. I was throwing food away left and right. Opened packages of lunch meat, hamburger buns, breakfast muffins. Terry had hit the mother lode.

As I started bagging up stuff for him we realized he wouldn’t be able to carry it all. I thought I might just leave him a stash in a box outside the camp and he could help himself. But then the thought came and stopped me cold. I went limp bending into the refrigerator and stood up, “Terry, where will you go?” They were predicting a hurricane as dangerous as Katrina. He had no shelter other than the van he was living in. I had begun to doubt that there was a sister.

He told me he wasn’t leaving. But you have to leave, I told him. There was a mandatory evacuation. He had to go. His life was in danger. After all, that’s why I was going wasn’t it? Everyone needed to get out of New Orleans. Every time he gave me a negative answer all I could think of to say was “You have to go.”

I wondered if PDA would let him come with me but immediately knew they wouldn’t. I knew better than to even ask. Or maybe I was afraid to ask. Maybe I was afraid they would say yes. Homeless people can be complicated. But I’ve come to appreciate that Christianity, when done correctly, is just very complicated.

The conversation came to a standoff and my guilt was enormous. I gave him as much food as he could carry and he left. As he walked out the door into the coming storm I was sure that I would never see Terry again. And, even worse, I would never know what happened to him.

But I did. And it was glorious to see him a few weeks later when we came back to reopen camp. I was so relieved to see him alive I gave him a huge hug and didn’t want to let go of him. He said he ended up getting on a bus the city sent around and eventually he claimed they sent him to Kentucky on an airplane. I have to admit I don’t have a clue about the accuracy of the story. While everyone in America was watching and reading all about the hurricane I was living in a church basement with one ancient rabbit-eared TV filled with snowy shadows. No one on earth knew less about Hurricane Gustav than the people who fled from it.

By now I had a co-manager, Colleen. And she cared about Terry as much as I did. The volunteers we had over the next few weeks cooked some great meals but Terry never came around as much when there were a lot of people around. And while we had many great left-overs with volunteers in camp, Terry still preferred a simple sandwich and an apple.

I warned Colleen to not let her guard down around him and to not be surprised if he pressed his luck too far. The memory of our experience with Mitchell back home was still fresh on my mind. Even in my parting words to Colleen I left warnings about Terry.

About a month after I left New Orleans Colleen called me to say that I wouldn’t believe what Terry had done. And in all my experience and reading about homeless people I still wasn’t prepared for what Terry had done for Colleen. He had brought her dinner.

She had lost her keys in the street in front of the camp and he spotted her walking around looking for them. Colleen, who never, ever gets flustered was flustered that day. And Terry not only joined in the search but he did a very selfless thing. He worried about her. Worrying about other people is just another one of those luxuries the homeless can’t afford. That’s why it was remarkable when he came by the next day with a simple cup of Gumbo in a take out cup from the place across the street.

She couldn’t accept it, she told him and tried to argue with him. He needed that money for himself. She couldn’t let him buy food for her. But he finally made her understand that the greatest gift she could give to him would be to accept it.

I can’t tell the story as well as Colleen; mostly because it’s her story. But I can offer you a moral to the story, though. If you are ever offered a cup of gumbo from a homeless guy—take note. It might be Jesus wanting to make sure you have food for the journey.

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