A few years ago a man named Frank wandered into our church for a hot cup of coffee. He had been drunk and sleeping on an old mattress behind the warehouse near our church. It was below-zero outside and Frank came in from the bitter cold. I know he had visited on other occasions, but this time I was drawn to him. I went to the coffee pot and introduced myself, and then I just stood and listened for what seemed like hours. This man poured out his heart and his soul: his guilt over the violence of his past; his shame over being estranged from his loved ones; his confession that he deserved to be homeless because of all the bad things he did; his yearning for faith that a God might actually see him; his daily frustration with his own addictions to alcohol and cigarettes, and whatever else was on his mind. I could see the tears stream down his face and noticed that they burned on his cold, weather-worn cheeks. It was an all consuming pain: spiritual pain from his sin and view of God as a punishing God, emotional pain from war time in the military and war-torn relationships at home, physical pain from shoes too tight and hands too cold, and constant weariness from lack of sleep and the torment of survival by addiction. The man was lost, and after his heartfelt stories penetrated my ears for an hour, I knew I had found another mentor. I could learn more from this man about life and dignity and survival than I could from any book or teacher I had before.
Well, Frank left the church building. It was always a gamble whether or not he would turn up again. Around thanksgiving 2012, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. So, the kids and I put together an envelope with some gloves, hand warmers, McDonald’s gift certificates, and candy in it. We left it in the church office and told the secretary to give it to Frank if she ever sees him around. By the grace of God, he did come around again, but I didn’t see him. The package was delivered and we were happy. I decided to keep my eye out for Frank as I drove through the neighborhood, just in case I would run into him. This act of being reflective as I drive to and from church and school has been rewarded now several times in different parts of the city!
One day my daughter and I were dropping off a package at my husband’s place of business on the NW side of town. We rarely are on Alpine and that day decided to stop at McDonald’s for lunch. We just sat down to eat when my daughter said, “Mom, something in here is really stinky.” I looked around and wouldn’t ya know?! Frank was sitting next to the faux fireplace drinking a cup of coffee. So, we bought him some lunch and chatted for a while. I tried explaining to my then 3-year-old why Frank was so stinky, but she still insisted on plugging her nose as we talked. I felt humiliated. Frank just said, “You sure have a beautiful daughter.” What grace and love from a man who has been stripped of all his dignity.
Another time I saw Frank he had a walker. This was a new development, so I stopped to find him and ask how he was doing. He explained that he had tried napping on the grass near the church and in his alcohol-induced coma, fell off of the cement wall about 4 feet to the parking lot. He smashed his shoulder and couldn’t help himself. Someone found him and called an ambulance. They put a steel rod in his arm in the hospital and after a few days sent him on his way. He was still hurting and limping when an old woman saw him and gave him her walker. She said, “Looks like you need this worse than I do.” Frank was blessed by someone who needed her own walker, too. He was amazed by that act of kindness.
The last time I saw Frank was just two weeks ago. I hadn’t seen him in over a year and he turned up near our school. I was so excited I quickly ran to McDonald’s and prayed that he wouldn’t be gone when I got back. I was able to share breakfast with him on a sunny morning in the parking lot of the Family Dollar. I noticed that he was smoking an old cigarette butt that someone else had left on the ground. He was puffing the last few puffs of a used cigarette! I assumed for relief from the cold and from anxiety, but noticed that he was more lucid than I had ever seen him. He spoke very clearly. He remembered the Christmas gift we gave him years ago and that the gloves were stolen from him while he slept. He shared what it was like to spend a night at Dégagé or other local missions, and the violence and dishonesty that kept him away from those places. He talked of a woman who needed help with her trash, so he would carry her trash and she would pay him with a cup of coffee. He talked of the ministry down the road that would occasionally let him shovel the sidewalk for a few bucks. He explained where he could safely sleep and the places he needed to avoid.
I offered to buy him a pack of smokes and he lit up like a Christmas tree! I realized in that moment that it was the best gift I could have offered. I ran across the street to buy my first pack of cigarettes, feeling prouder than ever. As I waited in line, I noticed him walk across the parking lot to go pee behind the dumpsters there. As I saw him take a potty break while I was away, I was so struck by how much this man has been stripped of all earthly comforts and still he finds a way to survive. Well, I gave him the pack of cigarettes, we exchanged some more pleasantries, and I said goodbye. I told him that if I saw him again, I would have some warm winter clothes for him in the back of my van. He confessed that without a watch it was pretty hard to make plans, but that he could listen to the bells on the church chime and he would know when it was 4:00. I still have the clothes in my van and haven’t seen him since.
So, what does this have to do with theological reflection? First of all, I believe it is God who keeps bringing Frank into my life at just the right times. I never have any idea where he will be, and for the last four years I have seen him at different times in different places, but always at the right time. My daughter still talks about Frank and how we have to build him a home. The Lord uses his life to grow my faith and to grow the faith of others who I tell about him. Frank is a living testimony of survival in the midst of the harshest circumstances, and of simple grace and love in the midst of those circumstances. He takes responsibility for his part of his homelessness, for his sin and addiction; but he also tries to give back what he can when he can. His heart testifies to God’s grace and mercy, and even though he says he isn’t a religious man (well, church can be good entertainment, he says), he still seeks God and realizes that God is providing for him at different times. God provides for me too, through Frank. He has given me compassion and wonder at the plight of the homeless. He has educated me through Frank’s stories about how He provides for His people regardless of whether or not they acknowledge Him. He humbles me and gives me a heart of gratitude for all that I have and take for granted on a daily basis. He keeps me close to the broken-hearted so that I am not consumed with my own self-pity and despair. This is a gift from the Lord. This is the education that I cannot get any other way than by truly listening to the life of another human being. When I listen to Frank, I am using all of my senses, and my theology informs my conclusions. I see his dirty face and hands and worn-out shoes and inadequate clothing; I hear his raspy voice and his cough from living day-in and day-out in the bitter cold; I smell his alcohol, smoke, and urine; I feel the callouses on his small worn hands; and I taste the leftover coffee in my mouth, realizing I can get one whenever I want to without worrying about offending anyone near me. I also listen to his body language. The way his eyes became bright when I mentioned a pack of smokes, it was as if I had given the greatest gift. This was only possible because I was also listening to my spirit and the voice of God which gave me the idea to provide for not what I think he needs, but what he would really want. This is love. This is gospel. When I meet Frank just as he is and he greets me just as I am and we smile, that’s awesome theology at work. ∞