The half-moon scar stretches from his lower to upper jaw. D found himself homeless for the first time at the age of 6. His step-father kicked him out of the house.
He betrayed his bravado with the recognition his next birthday would put him another year closer to 50. Convinced there are only two classes of people – leaders and followers – he determined he would bow to no one early in life. According to D, everyone recognizes him as a leader, even a protector of sorts.
Stocky and fearless, D retells a recent encounter with a young fellow much bigger and stronger, “An Andre the Giant.” The details fit the story of a streetwise leader intent to protect a large group of people.
“He took my power punches like they were nothing. Normally I can knock a person out with two blows.”
His story was confirmed by a couple of ladies who lead groups to provide food and clothing to those living on the streets or are just one bad break from living under a bridge.
I stood and chatted with D while helping ensure some toys and other items were not monopolized by just one person.
“Please just take one or two so others will have an opportunity too,” was my line.
Yet, she kept putting toys in her large bag. One at a time she surveyed them as if to cull the best from the worst.
The color of a person’s skin does not matter so much. D is either Hispanic or Native American. My guess is Hispanic based on the place where he was born in Texas. The young lady, likely in her late teens or early twenties, was African American. While D and I were talking and the young lady was sifting toys an older gentleman approached.
Something had happened. In a sort of grandfatherly way he began to speak to the young woman. She made not protest because he was White. He showed no disrespect because she was Black and a woman. Instead he demonstrated a high degree of empathy. Whatever had happened it had involved her. The older gentleman knew about it. He was encouraging her. He told her not to think it somehow her fault. Like you, my curiosity rose. One must refrain from tabloid like interest. As it was, the older gentleman knew the story and he showed a keen sincerity for her well-being.
Odd as it may sound to some, community forms among those who share life in the same way. One wonders if those who look to coerce community in churches would somehow be helped by learning from the least of these.
Then there is G. If my conversation with D, and the conversation between the young lady and the older gentleman illustrates a sense of community around shared experience, my conversation with G ruptures every stereotype of homelessness. In fact, G represents homelessness as protest. Maybe, just maybe, so do D and others. Think about it. Those we consider rejects for one reason or another actually participate in a form of community for which we hope and in many of our current forms only pretend.
One of the young ladies who organize the ministry to those in need chatted with G and me. When I first met G a number of years ago he had mesmerized one of our older fellows from church. He was flabbergasted to talk with someone so articulate who carried his belongings on his back and spent 7-10 hours at the local library communicating with Russian ex-Pats in Russian. I confess to carnival like amusement.
Recently G offered some of the most insightful analysis of Bill Cosby, the rape/abuse culture, and the state of women’s issues. He referenced Woody Allen movies and Allen himself as illustrations. He was not regurgitating what he had read from another’s analysis, G carried the conversation in the most engaging way.
The young lady responded to his wit, charm, and obvious intellect by suggesting he get a job where he could put that to use. He replied,
“Why would I want to go work for someone who will make money off of me and not use it in an honorable way? What would inspire me to beg for a job knowing that is the state of affairs in our culture. No, just consider me a voice in the wilderness. A wandering philosopher.”
G knows full well what he could contribute. But, he knows the system is so broken that his participation would only reinforce things as they are. His life on the streets is a protest move, “Deal with me.” Too often we only think people living on the streets suffer mental health issues, found civilian life too daunting after killing people under the rouse of war, or simply poor money managers. But, at least one fellow lives on the street in protest.
I do not know how old G is. From our conversations I would guess at least 60. I do not know the story that put him on the street but evidently his continued mobile address is his choice. What if we learned there are more people like him? Would it compel us to hear their protests?
Beyond Safe Protests
Many of us read critiques of the system. We like those detailed arguments of the consequences of late stage capitalism. We consider the current Election Cycle to be little more than a Midway Show at a traveling circus. But, few of us are willing to live on the street in protest.
Could it be the Church, Christians, could learn something here too? What if we determined to pay careful attention to the way the system forms us for ill and decided to pursue community around a shared understanding that people matter for something more than what they contribute to a bottom line, or an Annual Church Profile? What if we took up practices that did more than talk a good protest game than simply making it sound so on Social Media or from our pulpits.
Admittedly this has stirred me. I once found the snare of church numbers an indicator of success. Too often I protest more when I speak than by how I live.
But, D, a young Black woman, a grandfatherly older gentleman, and G have left me considering just how much on the edge I really am.