From April 5.
Today was Easter. I found you in one of your usual spots. But when I say "I found you," perhaps more accurately I should say I was led to you, because it was a God-thing, not a Jeremy-thing. You see, I left Easter services at Jacob's Well this morning with a sense of Call in the back of my mind, that I should find a homeless person (sorry, "person experiencing homelessness" - I'm still fighting to reign in my label-using instinct) and invite them to Easter lunch with my family. As I started driving, I realized that for each person I saw signing on a street corner today, they probably didn't have a family or a Community to spend this most Holy day with, and that weighed on my heart.
I handed out a couple ministry bags but I didn't "click" with either person enough to invite them to lunch. By that I mean I used "not clicking" as an excuse in the hopes I could get out of the lunch invitation deal (because I'm human). As I kept driving toward Mom and Dad's, though, I was frightened by a dawning realization: what if I'm supposed to bump into you? What if the Spirit planted this seed because I'm supposed to invite you to my family lunch? Remembering how awkward it was bringing you to church, I confess I committed sin against you as I started praying, "please God, don't ask me to do that. And yet, not my will but Yours be done. But please don't ask me to do that."
Nearing Hiawatha from Lake street, I had a choice - I could go straight, and get to my parents' on time. Or I could listen to the Spirit's nudge and turn south. I turned. There were remarkably few people out begging today, which, actually, I'm happy for, because again, how heart-breaking is it to not have anyone to spend Easter with :(. I reached 46th street, the median where you often stand, and there was another man there. I gave him a bag and breathed relief, thinking I was off the hook. Instead of a u-turn, though, the Spirit said turn left. And there I saw you, leaned against the stop sign in the back alley behind the Holiday station.
I'd seen you briefly last week so I knew you were back in town, but this was our first chance to talk, and for me to ask about your kidney transplant (Reader, see part 4). You told me the bad news: within a day of your surgery (though I was glad to hear you'd made it to Des Moines safely), your body rejected the donated kidney, and they had to remove it. Now you're back on frequent dialysis. I didn't know how to respond to you, so I sat in silence.
We talked a bit more, both of us waving on cars in the alley behind me who couldn't figure out that my hazards meant I was parked. I asked why you were out here, and you told me you'd lost your bank card (or something like that?) and couldn't withdraw money to pay the rest of your month's rent until you got a replacement, 10 days from now. (In retrospect I don't really understand your situation - can't you go into the bank and withdraw money without a card? But, I've never experienced what it's like to be homeless, so I guess the reason I don't understand, is because I can't share your mindset.) I asked if you were spending Easter with family, because I remembered you had a sister who lived in state. You said that's true, but she and her husband are vacationing in Australia right now, so you're on your own.
You said until you get your rent paid you're sleeping in the park, and asked if I had a blanket. Well, yes, actually. I made one specially for you. Of course I didn't know it would be you when I made it, but this past winter, on a suggestion from my friend Laura, I bought a bunch of fabric and made some tie-fleeces to keep in my car and hand out to people in need. Practical gift, no problem.
Then you did me in. I was fighting the Spirit fairly successfully, justifying how I could and should just drive away, until you elaborated on how hungry you were. There I was, on my way (late by this point) to a warm, home-cooked meal (and my Dad's a really good cook). And I knew I'd left church, Easter service of all services, with this Spirit-nudge that I'd be inviting a stranger to lunch. Like your and my other encounters, you said the specific key words that the Spirit had already been placing on my heart to be listening for.
Reader, I'd like to digress and tell a story from Upper Room. Months ago, our worship leader Stefan shared about a time he invited several panhandlers to lunch with his friends, at where he knew would be an upscale restaurant. He couldn't very well call his friends in front of his guests and say "I'm bringing homeless people to lunch," so instead (and the way he told this was much more hilarious than how I can recount it now) he dialed one of his friends, timing it carefully to give himself two seconds of talk time after he was through the revolving door but before his guests got inside after him, and in those seconds he blurted out to his friend: "I'm here and Jesus is with me." Click. The way Stefan recounted this at UR, it got a huge laugh. The really funny punch line came next, though, because Stefan's friend on the phone knew him well enough to translate that as "Stefan's bringing a homeless guy with him." </digression>
By this time, Mom was texting me asking how soon I expected to get there. So, while you were putting your stuff in the back seat of my car, I replied to her with this Stefan-inspired text:
10 minutes. Jesus is coming with me. Aka Gary, who I've blogged about. Can you set another spot at the table?
I know, because my parents told me, that this caught them rather off-guard, but they went with the flow and everyone (Mom, Dad, my aunt and uncle and cousin, and a friend from my parents' church) were all incredibly gracious when you and I arrived. And may I say, despite what you said about not feeling well today, I thought you were actually physically moving around better than I'd seen our last several encounters, and you were significantly more lucid. This is selfish, but I want to thank you for that, because it made Easter lunch much less awkward than I'd feared it would end up. Praise God for that.
Praise God also, my family made you feel welcome. My suspicion is you don't get to feel welcome very often. They showed you love. And you told me afterward you really liked the egg and ham bake Dad had made, so I know you had had a good meal. My suspicion is you don't get many of those, either.
I have another confession I need to make to you: while I was sitting next to you at the table (somewhat in awe and feeling relief of how un-extraordinary the conversation was), I prayed: "God, is this enough?" Because I know Jesus would have done more. I know Jesus would have invited you to stay the whole afternoon, instead of driving you back to the Holiday right after dessert. Yet I felt God's response to the effect of, "This is enough, this is all I'm going to ask you to do today," followed by the verse about "well done good and faithful servant" (citation: it's in the Bible somewhere).
Our table conversation was truly so uneventful, I don't actually remember much of it. I recall there was a long (and boring) conversation about sports, and it looked like you took a nap during that part (I can't blame you). We heard a little bit about your military service (Reader: Gary served 29 years active duty, which, if you're doing the math, is as long as I have been alive). And my family swapped stories about the various Triduum/Good Friday/Easter services we'd attended at our different churches. And that's about it.
After I brought you back to your corner, I came back home, and we talked about you. We talked about people experiencing homelessness in general. We talked about how to respond, how not to respond, and it was a good conversation. Thank you for that gift, thank you for opening the door to that conversation that would not have happened otherwise.
Years from now my family and I likely aren't going to remember anything else we talked about at Easter lunch, but we are going to remember this Easter that you came to eat with us. All we did was feed you a meal. I hope by doing so, though, that we also gave you a portion of your humanity back, a humanity I fear is too often robbed by the perceptions others feel toward your cardboard sign.
Gary, lest I allow any amount of pride to cloud humility, let me be quite honest about this Easter journey for me: Even though I knew inviting you to Easter lunch was something God was asking me to do (I don't want to say I was "supposed" to or "had" to, because I believe in free will), it was incredibly not-easy breaking down all the barriers of unwillingness and fear, fear of judgement, etc, that I'd set up. I feared bringing you home because I feared it would be awkward. I know I could have said no; I could have driven away and no one would have judged me for that. Heck I'm not even sure I believe God would have judged me for running (first boat to Tarshish, anyone? [Bible joke, Google it]). But after a weekend lamenting how far distant I feel from the Spirit and praying to grow closer, how could I then not follow through when I knew God was specifically inviting me into this opportunity? Am I to have just turned away? What kind of spiritual leader would that make me for my future family, or for my friends and family now? Like I told my parents afterward, I needed to do this for me, because I wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror tomorrow morning. And, I wanted my cousin Amy, 16, to see a tangible example of what living out one's faith might look like (don't get me wrong, she's got a faith of her own, and she has great faith role-models in her parents, but what 16-year-old thinks their parents know anything?). Nevertheless, like I said, it was hard.
God calls each of us to our own unique ways of renewing the world and bringing God's love into it. I, for example, am definitely not [currently in this stage in my life] called to overseas mission trips. Ministry to those experiencing homelessness and poverty, though, is one of my known-to-be-Called-here mission fields. Because of that I know I did the right thing, but it's left me with, temporarily at least, a humility that won't allow me to judge anyone else for driving away. Hopefully, over time, Jesus will continue softening my heart and growing me to be more like Him.
Lastly, I want to specifically thank someone who I've written about before, but who probably has no idea she has had this level of impact in my life. To quote a blog post I wrote last June:
... my friend Nathan and his then-girlfriend-now-wife Catherine were grabbing coffee, when a homeless man approached us. We declined to help him, but Catherine was ill-at-ease with our response, and so we went to a nearby grocery store and she bought him a sandwich and talked with him. Since that moment I've hoped my future wife will be someone like that, but why wait - I want to be that person already, before I meet her. I said to myself, "all right, let's go do this."
Catherine, by living out your faith and love for people, you've inspired me into becoming a better version of myself. Thank you. I'm very glad you and Nate and I got together for coffee that morning years ago, because your actions have changed my life.