When I knew him, many years ago, he was a frequent and intensely enigmatic presence in my life. Tall and stately in manner, he wore the same rumpled suit pretty much day after day. His simple observations belied a vocabulary that was rich and deep. A former teacher and newspaper editor he was, for many years, also a drunk. Sober for a long time when I first met him, John seemed unable or unwilling - I never knew which - to give up the street that claimed him during his drinking days. Always in debt, he would buy trinkets and cheap perfume and resell them to the prostitutes who worked the west end of the city. I went with him one day on his usual route, taking the bus and then walking, of course. His notions didn't sell very well, but his charm did and most were glad he stopped by. If John made enough for a few days sustenance, he would lay low for a while and then, when food and rent ran out, he would resume his trade as purveyor of fifty-cent baubles. When he was around, he was always in church. When gone, who knows where he went. John knew I had clinical skills in alcohol treatment. I knew he had an unresolved past. His confidence in himself, even after years of sobriety, never seemed to make it beyond the street level at which he lived. We stayed friends because most of the time, neither of us employed what we knew about the other.
By the sixth month of his latest absence, I began to worry. It was unusual for him to be away - and away from church - for that long. I checked with a friend, walked his route, approached the women who were his customers. No sight of John. Later I discovered he was too much in debt to one of his creditors, a tough guy who owned the wholesale shop where John bought. He was on the lam. A year passed. I thought about him often, remembering his treks across the west end, cardboard box full of cheap stuff under his arm. Occasionally the heat would stop him, but I remembered days when snow and sleet did not.
Iowa is in the heart of tornado alley. One night while working late in my office the weather alert sirens go off. Pitch black, volatile gusts of wind and driving rain. I think I should go home, and the phone rings. It must be Irene telling me to get home now. Instead, the voice on the other end says, "Can you come get me?" The rain makes it hard to see, but eventually I pull up next to a bedraggled figure soaked to the bone and I drive John back to the church. Dried off and in clothes too short for him, I ask if he's all right. "Yes", he says, "just needing to find a new type of work." "Want to tell me where you've been?" I ask. "Chicago," he says, "spending the last few nights in a dumpster." This former teacher and editor living in a dumpster.
The church had one unoccupied room in the undercroft. Contents included one sofa that unfolded into a bed, some chairs, a lamp and a table. That became John's home. And then one day an ad appeared in the paper seeking a part-time adjunct instructor of English at a local college. John took the ad and came home with a new teaching position, far from the streets of the west end. Lesson plans, class preparation, the whole nine yards. He was a teacher again. One Sunday he sat down after church and said, "I want to offer something to the church in return." Two months later, he performed a one man, two-act play on the life of Clarence Darrow adapted from Inherit the Wind. He performed to an audience of paying customers and gave the money to the church.
Was it the lack of confidence again? I don't know. Probably. I went down to his room at the church one evening. His books were gone, lesson plans gone, John was gone. I have never seen him since. Even today I find myself occasionally glancing at a seventy-something stranger, wondering if … you know. Maybe, even subconsciously, that is why I spend more time than necessary when we shelter here at church. Even if he is not there, I have come to learn that, like John, some of the richest personalities and warmest people are among the homeless. And somewhere long ago, in a mostly forgotten Sunday School lesson, I learned that is where Jesus was to be found, too. Will I ever see John again? Probably not. But in my search for him among our sheltered it may be I will discover our Lord. If you are looking for him too, our shelter begins July 1st.
Then the king will say … 'Come, you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me … truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of my family, you did it to me.' Matt 25:34-37,40
The Rev. Stephen B. Snider firstname.lastname@example.org
Church of the Holy Apostles
Wynnewood (Philadelphia) PA
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