Last night, my friend Jim was at church for the first time since the new year.
I don’t remember exactly when he became someone important to me. But one night, he walked in the door for dinner church with his bag on his back, and I hadn’t seen him for a couple months, though I’d thought about him, prayed for him in our morning prayers. Without thinking, I went to him and embraced him and he embraced back. I think I surprised us both.
He’s in a season of experiencing homelessness. He wasn’t, when we first met. The first time we sat around a table together, he had a roommate who was on something, and he was trying to strategize about what to do next.
The next time, he was newly on the streets, braving it alone, and navigating fire ants while sleeping under overpasses. That was a year and a half ago. Since then, I’ve heard about temporary living arrangements, from a church basement to an abandoned apartment and a few places in between. He’s told me about pan-handling, the loss of dignity that comes with it, and the people who sometimes go out of their way to be kind to him.
Last night when I saw him, I was eager to hear what was new, to find out how he’s faring. Once he settled in across the table from me, I asked how he was.
“Well… destitute, but good.”
We both laughed a little, and I shook my head, willing back the tears from my eyes. He’s a marvel to me, how he makes it and somehow hasn’t devolved into crushing despair. I would. If it were me, I’d crawl into church thinking the world was ending. But he always comes bearing dad-jokes.
The stories each time I see him are vulnerable, particular, but never self-pitying, and never asking pity of me. He has paid a certain kind of attention to the emotional contours of his experience, has a sense of what it means to be moving through this, at least for him, and has come ready to share that, because it’s what he can offer of his days and weeks.
Jim’s not the only one I hold near in my prayers and worries, not the only one in my life experiencing homelessness, and not the only one for whom I’m holding out hope or longing for wholeness. When I came on staff at dinner church, I expected to serve others; I didn’t expect to come to love them or look forward to seeing them as much as I do. Often on Sunday nights, I’m a receiver of life-stories in progress. I often get to embrace, as risky as that probably sounds. I get to listen to the ebbs and flows of their lives, and hear the parts that are important, like dreams, like small steps, like steps backward, or no steps and what it’s like to be waiting for who knows what, and it all feels like such a gift to be trusted with their tellings.
Seeing Jim around the table has become something of a homecoming experience. I don’t know if he would tell it that way, but I’m cognizant of the rhythms of his returning, and my small role in welcoming him to a place where he’s known, he has a name, and his stories are remembered.
But also in some ironic way, his returns feel like a homing for me too. He asked me last night about my own week, wanting to know how I am, how my son is, and my housemate. The name-knowing, the story-telling-and-remembering, the listening – it’s mutual. At the end of the night, he comes to say goodbye as I stand by the piano. I hear my name and turn.
“I’m headed out, sweetheart. I’ll see you again.” I move in for the embrace, we squeeze tight for a moment, and he moves toward the door. It might be another month, maybe two, before we catch up again.
. . .
Last night in my dreams, it is Lent and I have given up being housed as my discipline. I go to Jim’s morning church, the one he gave me the business card for once, and I find him there greeting at the door before service. He welcomes me. After the service, I tell him I want to be homeless with him, that I want him to show me how to do this. He’s skeptical and a little amused, shaking his head like I’ve lost my mind and maybe I have. He tries to talk me out of it.
“You can’t just choose homelessness, sweetheart,” he says. “You can’t really know what it’s like unless it’s unchosen. The loss of everything is so much a part of it. You have to lose it all and then find out you keep on living. That’s grace.”
But I tell him I want this. I tell him it’s a discipline, a practice, the best trying I have to understand what it’s like. I ask him if he’ll at least take me panhandling with him.
So we go to his corner, and I squat on a milk-crate as he walks up and down the green with a cup in his hand, respectfully motioning to cars with bits of charm and gratitude as he works for his dinner. I sit and watch, sit and marvel, the heat waves rising off the summer concrete until the waves become water, and suddenly I am a child sitting on the bench of a row-boat with my dad over a lake, watching bobbers in the current and lilypads undulating. Under the water, I see not fish, but cars with people, reaching hands out the windows, hooking dollars to the end of fishline. My dad says in Jim’s voice, “Sweetheart, fishing is all about patience and paying attention. You do it right, and you get to eat.”
. . .
I am not displaced.
But I do often feel misplaced – like I have left myself somewhere and can’t remember where; like you misplace your keys or an important paper or your driver’s license. I’m lost and searching, rustling through papers on the dresser, checking pants pockets, wondering where I put me.
I can’t tell you what the dream means. Maybe nothing really, except that week after week around tables with those unwittingly on the margins has begun to form in me an empathic curiosity for what this must be like. I have a desire to feel something more than helplessness when they tell me their stories. I long for a way to see their stories transfigured from the trite easy stories culture tells about them to stories more nuanced and interesting, more human. Maybe I sense the wisdom or at least camaraderie they might have in this strange season of my own life, the waiting for who knows what. Maybe something of me resonates with the emotional undercurrents, however imperfectly and as a dim shadow of what their lives are really like.
I’ll tell you this: I think it must be that only if you’re sitting around a table with a meal and with time do you hear the stories and come to love. Sometimes we feel to me like a family eating dinner together at the end of the day. “How was your day? What was your week like?” We ask these questions in our house over dinner all the time. But then we send them back out at the end of the night to their own lives, and the more we love, the more impossible it becomes to see them as “homeless” in a generalized sense, to dismiss them as a fact of the world, and not a human being who came from a family and who is living a unique story now. The more we love, the bigger the internal questions become, and sometimes more fervent the prayers.
It’s tempting to tie it all up in a nice bow here at the end, make some convincing application, but I don’t know if there is one. I don’t think I’ll know what this ultimately means, this loving Jim, for awhile – not until hindsight, and even then, will I?
For now, maybe it means simply this: Shannon knows Jim’s name, and Jim knows Shannon’s name, and they have shared stories, and shared bread and wine and dinner, not just alone, but with others at the table too, breaking down the labels that would keep them from knowing one another. And their table is one table out of ten or so on a Sunday night. And the world is full of tables and dinners and people waiting to be known and belong to one another.
Maybe it simply means that.