His story came out in bits and pieces. They always do. He’d been sleeping outside since he saw me last, two weeks ago. It’s winter. Does he know about the warming center? Hypothermia, he says. It’s warmer now, but temperatures were in the single digits within the last week. He holds up his hands and shows me his rough fingers. Is he going to ask me to help him? We give money to the warming center to help folks like him. I can’t stay in the warming center, I have panic attacks. Is there any way you can help me, Pastor Jody?
When D. showed up in time for worship two weeks ago, he greeted me with the exuberance of a long-lost friend. “Pastor! Do you remember me?” I recognized him, and then remembered. The last time he was in town, more than a year ago, I helped him. I let him borrow a broom from the church so he could sweep out the leaves from a little-used doorway off the alley and settle down there for the night. It was a safe spot, he told me, he knew because he’d slept there before. The loan of a broom was all he asked for. Maybe I also found some food for him in the church kitchen, I really don’t remember. I do remember how sweet and grateful he was. I do remember knowing that life without a home, life on the road, was his life.
Yesterday he asked for more than a broom. He was tired of being cold and dirty. It made him nervous when I asked him to have a cup of coffee in the fellowship hall while I attended to other duties. I wasn’t sure he would last that long before heading back outside. But he was there. I found some deacons to help me, and we sat down at a table to talk.
This is what I know about D., the bits of his story which I’ve pieced together. He is 51 years old. He has been homeless for 30 years. He has blue eyes, he’s missing his front teeth, he has PTSD, one time he woke up and his clothes were on fire and he’s been on the move ever since. He has a few friends in different places. He drinks. He is sweet and gentle. He was in the army for a short while. He won’t, or can’t, stay in one city. He feels compelled to move on. This is his life.
He listened to our suggestions for how he might qualify for veterans’ benefits, and the steps he’d need to take. But just the thought of sticking around long enough to make that happen made him anxious. He laughed at himself as he ended the conversation, saying, “I’m too disabled to qualify for disability!”
He promised he wouldn’t drink or have anyone join him in the motel room we found him for the night. I expect I’ll see him again, although who knows when. Maybe he counts me as one of his friends in one of the cities he frequents. I pray that he’ll be safe, that he won’t die alone on the road, and that someday he will find peace and a home.
Today I listen to reasons for not providing a motel room for a traveler like D., to questions about the choices he has made and is making, and to doubts about his veracity and intentions. Today I ponder our society and its margins, where sweet, simple people live uncounted. And I wonder, what does Jesus ask me to do?