“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
A few years ago my pastor-husband Larry started hanging out with some homeless people. He took them to lunch. They sat on shady bus benches together and talked during the hot hours of the Memphis summer. They started having dinner together on Wednesday nights at Taco Bell, and that slowly became a discussion of spiritual things, important things, things beyond just the physical needs of homeless folk. Or homed folk, for that matter. Taco Bell soon became a tiny, quiet church every Wednesday early evening, before services at our other church began. Staff and patrons alike quickly grew accustomed to this little flock, oft listening in on the gentle conversations with amused ears, if not reverent ones. Some of the homeless folk attending Church at the Taco Bell spoke and asked questions, many of them just ate. The restaurant servers were admirably generous and loving to their new homeless parishioners and quite often gave everyone free food, especially when new menu items appeared on the scene and needed taste testing ~ a small revival broke out upon the debut of the Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Taco Supreme.
Wednesday night dinner and Bible study at Taco Bell became the new norm. The homeless seemed to love it. So did Larry.
Larry’s Jeep slowly began to look like a storage closet – coats, shirts, boots, towels, blankets – now I know where homeless folk store their stuff. Or at least the Memphis homeless. Or at least some of the ones who stay on Poplar Avenue.
I started finding homeless people’s things all over my house. Jimmy’s antibiotics in our refrigerator. Luke’s frayed T-shirts in my dryer. Random shoes. Sleeping bags and space heaters and a mountain of sports socks became a small congregation in my garage. Friends gave coats and blankets as the winter dampness approached, and these items found their home in our storage closets as well. Sally’s walker is propped up against our dog kennel still.
Larry loved picking up the homeless on Poplar Avenue and taking them where they needed to be. Dostoevsky says “every man needs a place to go,” and in my opinion, he is always right. Even the homeless have places they need to go.
To the courthouse to work on getting an identity card.
To the post office to send and receive things from relatives.
To the drugstore to pick up more medicine.
To the Salvation Army to get new shoes.
Larry’s homeless friends started coming to our church on Sunday mornings. Some of the church folk were a little less enamored of the homeless. And in all fairness, the homeless are not always the grateful lot that one would hope.
William with the wild dreadlocks wandered in and out during the service noisily and continually – though not that much more than regular attenders seeking one more cup of coffee or a bathroom break, but somehow it seemed different to people. Frank sometimes shouted out at inappropriate times – blessings and curses – remarkably indiscriminate in his language choices. Sally’s walker held a large cardboard sign that read “HOMELESS – HELP!” and she had a wonderfully unique fashion sense that included enormous, colorful hats and toile. Jake snored loudly through every service like a sleep apnea patient.
They couldn’t sit still in their seats very well. They fidgeted. They slept. They belched. They smelled bad.
They all smelled really bad.
Some mothers held their children a bit closer when these folk drifted by to the restroom, to the coffee and doughnuts, in and out of the front doors. But there was never any danger. Offensive odors and blank stares were about as harmful as it got.
Looking back, I think the homeless probably preferred the Taco Bell Wednesday night church. It was easy, and the food is good.
Pete was the first homeless guy Larry met. At the corner of Poplar and Estate, Larry asked Pete if he would like some lunch, to which Pete mumbled a quiet “That would be nice,” and a friendship began to bloom in the Memphis heat. A quiet man, wary, yet there was a tender vulnerability about Pete, dignity even, that compelled. He was pure of heart.
There was story in his eyes.
Pete started riding around in the Jeep with Larry a little and they would talk some, but mostly they just rode in the quiet. Pete became Larry’s sidekick, going along with him from place to place, making a church visit or picking up the food for the Senior Adult lunch or taking clothes to the refugee center.
The stuff of, the makings of a friendship.
Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was Me – you did it to Me.
That winter when Pete was in and out of the hospital with pneumonia, Larry went to visit and even sneaked some of his homeless friends in to see him. Then there was that time that Pete was in jail for public drunkenness – the night he was so drunk that he hit both Larry and the policeman. Pete sat in jail a few days for that one. Larry went to visit him there as well.
When did we ever see You sick or in prison and come to You?
Another winter came, and Pete and his son, who had come from Tupelo for a visit, got cold, really cold. They had been sleeping on the porch of an out-of-business Mexican restaurant, and even though it doesn’t get really cold in Memphis very often, when it does get cold, we Memphians are thoroughly unprepared for it, and we all freeze. Three snowflakes and we are done with winter. Pete was no exception. People from the church had given us a garage full of sleeping bags and coats for such a moment, but this particular cold spell required more. It started to snow, and the porch of the dilapidated Mexican restaurant did not provide enough shelter for this night.
What Pete and his son needed was a roof and some walls.
Larry left our house late one night, and I had fallen asleep before he got home. “Where have you been?” was my sleepy hello.
“Those guys needed a bit more than just a porch tonight. Nobody should have to sleep in the snow. They are at the Comfortel on Summer Avenue. Now go to back to sleep.”
I was homeless, and you gave Me a room.
Insects and amphibians and crustaceans undergo the process of metamorphosis, which is a conspicuous and relatively abrupt change in the animal’s body structure, usually accompanied by a change of habit or behavior. After that night at the Comfortel – which ended up being a couple of nights, a relatively long cold spell for Memphis – Pete began a metamorphosis of his own. He started to change.
Slow but measurable change.
We don’t often see change at the time it’s happening. Like leaves unfolding or water warming. Like children growing or parents aging. Seeing change requires our attention and often some thoughtful inspection; otherwise, we can miss it. Pete’s change looked like this: he started giving Larry his money. The homeless in Memphis (at least the few we know) all get a check each month. Many of them also receive gifts from their families and, of course, there’s the money they get from panhandling. I don’t know what they all do with this money, but I know what Pete did with his. Each month he either lost it, or people would steal it from him, or he would spend it far too quickly on liquor and cigarettes at the beginning of the month, leaving himself nothing at all at the end of the month. This was the plan of his life, month after month, year after year. This was all he knew ~ this was all there was.
Until those snowy nights at the Comfortel. After those nights I guess Pete thought that maybe he could trust this pastor-friend of his, and he started giving him his money.
Wordless pleas for help are often the loudest.
Larry would take Pete’s money each month and save it for him. Then at the beginning of each week, Larry would give Pete one-quarter of the month’s money for him to live on. “Try not to lose it, Pete,” Larry would say. “Don’t drink it all up, buddy.”
And believe it or not, that’s exactly what Pete did not do. He did not lose it as much any more. Little by little, he quit drinking it all up. He started sobering up, little by little. He didn’t have a month’s worth of cash in his pockets anymore, so other people on the street started leaving him alone – they didn’t steal from him or beat him up as much because he never had very much.
This was how Pete spent the rest of his winter. Trying.
Spring came. Daffodils bloomed and birds erupted from their shells and Memphis warmed up again. Pete found his way back to the porch of the still-out-of-business Mexican restaurant, and he and Larry started riding around in the Jeep again, top down, picking up and delivering things for the church and swinging by Taco Bell. Normal springtime stuff. Spring’s slow metamorphoses, opening slowly but beautifully like a gauzy butterfly or timid tulip. On one such warm afternoon, Pete, more alert and sober than Larry had ever seen him, broke the news.
Pete had made a brave choice.
“I’m going to move, pastor,” he said, clearly, not mumbling so much now. “My son wants me to come and live with them in Tupelo. He and his girlfriend have had a baby – I’m a grandpa, did you know that? I want to be there with them. I think I’m going to do it.”
“Pete, that sounds great,” Larry said, masking his immediate sadness. He missed his friend already.
“Pastor, could you take me there, to Tupelo?” was Pete’s quiet request. “Could you help me move?”
“Of course, my friend. Of course I’ll help you move. That’s what friends do.”
Almost the next day, Larry carried Pete and his trunkful of possessions to Tupelo, helped him find his son’s apartment, and then drove home alone.
It was a quiet ride in both directions.
It’s been about a year now since we’ve seen Pete. He calls sometimes, but that happens less and less. Some of his stuff is still in the trunk of Larry’s car – some tee-shirts and rags and things – but I get the impression that Pete doesn’t need that stuff any more. He hasn’t asked for it.
Pete called the other day and Larry put it on speaker.
“Hey, Pete! How’s it going?”
“It’s going good,” he said. There was a bit animation in Pete’s voice. A lilt, almost musical. I want to think that’s a good sign.
“How’s the grandbaby?” Larry asked, a bit jealous.
“Good. She likes me.” Long pause. “Pastor, I’m not coming back to Memphis. I thought I might, but I think I’m going to stay here. I like being close to my family. It feels good. There’s a roof and walls here all the time.”
“That’s good, man.”
“Well, thanks for everything, pastor. You helped me. I miss you.”
“I miss you, too. Call me if you need anything.”
“I will. Bye.”
He hasn’t called back.
Not long ago Larry and I ate a quiet, nostalgic dinner at Taco Bell on a Wednesday evening. The other homeless people have wandered away, living on other streets now, under new bridges. Sally took the bus to Florida when it got cold here last winter; word on the street is that she’s back in Memphis, but we haven’t been able to find her. Luke just called again yesterday, after a long silence, so we’ll see if he shuffles back into our lives. The kind-hearted restaurant manager asked about Pete in particular, and we told her of Pete’s courageous move to Tupelo to live near his son and grandchild. She liked that story so much that she treated us to a Diet Pepsi, and we all raised a paper cup to his success.
Pete would have loved that.
The rest of the staff were new to the shift and knew nothing of the sweet, brief moments that were the Wednesday evening restaurant-church that once-upon-a-time gathered under the fluorescent lights and among the clean tables of our local taco place.
The ironic beauty of it all moves me deeply ~ what is nothing but a brief stint in a one-night cheap motel to one person changes the life of another.
But that’s just how grace works. It reaches down and out and offers life where death is deserved. It extends a hand of healing when pain is all that’s left.
It doesn’t say things like “I’m not wasting my time on you” or “You will pay for that.”
It doesn’t even think these things.
Grace says, “You are welcome to my table, no matter what choices you’ve made” and “You are loved beyond your most desperate thought.”
Grace says, “When you are hungry, I will feed you. When you are thirsty, I will give you drink. When you are naked, I will clothe you.”
Grace dwells in the dirty back alleys of humanity where religious men lower their eyes, on streets Pharisees refuse to tread.
Grace is greater than all our sin.
And it never ceases to amaze.