It was close to Christmas in 1971. I remember because of the bitter cold, at least bitter for Phoenix and cold enough to freeze to death in. I remember too because I was wearing my new long black overcoat, something you rarely get to do in Phoenix. My friend Randy and I were hanging out as usual at Hobo Joe’s coffee shop after his night shift ended, drinking coffee, righting the world’s injustices, talking about Jesus and watching people, sometimes until dawn. We saw a lot of severe humanity late at night at Hobo Joe’s. Cruising gays, hookers, groups of servicemen, rowdy cowboys, monosyllabic drug addicts, lonely businessmen and glassy eyed insomniacs. This night among the usual suspects there was a broken withered man dressed in thin rags staring into an empty coffee cup, his hands were shaking like crisp brown leaves in the cold winter wind. The waiters and waitresses walked by him dozens of times with pots of hot coffee and pitchers of water and never stop to ask if he needed a refill. He never looked up, he just sat there hunched over the cup, his head involuntarily shaking. He had obviously more than taken advantage of the free refills on his one cup of coffee. Eventually the manager went to his table and though you couldn’t hear the words you could hear his tone and his tone gave away his tune. We knew he was being evicted from his corner booth even though the restaurant wasn’t nearly half-full.
Randy and I decided that the situation warranted an intervention. We got up and went over to the old man’s table and said, “Bob what are you doing here? How are you old buddy? We haven’t seen you in ages. Hey, why don’t you come join us… we were just getting ready to eat.” The man never looking up slowly raised his shaking body from the table and obediently shuffled over to our table, the manager was right behind us matching our steps. Randy turned and said, “He’s with us we need a menu please.”
Old winos aren’t long on brilliant conversation or even small talk. It was a quiet meal, solemn, and in a very real sense sacramental. After supper we drove him to the county hospital and checked him in for detox. I gave him my coat because we knew he would be put back out on the street in 12 hours around dusk, a little more sober, probably just sober enough to be able to find his way to a Circle K for a bottle of wine and then to a Denny’s for the night. Or if I’m more optimistic perhaps he has a wife and a family and has 38 years of sobriety now.
Years ago a reporter on a local news station did a piece on the homeless panhandlers that stand on street corner. For a full day he stood on the curb at a freeway exit with a small cardboard sign. The only thing that I recall about his report is that he said the hardest thing about the experience was the sense of depersonalization, loneliness and rejection as people drove by him and never even looked at him. He said to the effect that at the end of the day just eye contact or a glance of acknowledgment of his existence was more important to him than any money he would have received.
What the reporter experienced is an important lesson for us as Christians. I don’t think it’s news to any of us that we are to see the image of Christ in all human beings no matter how sad lazy or crazy they might be. But it’s one thing to intellectually acknowledge that as a dogma, but it is another thing to live according to it. How many of us actually do avoid eye contact with the homeless, the ragged, the people on the street corners. In avoiding looking at them we are not only dismissing their humanity but we are avoiding looking at our own, and in the end we are avoiding Christ himself. The reality is, if we cannot look into the face of a homeless person we will not be able to see the face of Christ, nor will we ever see our own true faces.
St. Isaac said, “The man who sees himself is better than the one who sees angels”. If we cannot see ourselves, we cannot see Christ because it is only in seeing ourselves that we learn repentance. The homeless are a mirror in which we see our own aimless wanderings, our own hunger and thirst for something beyond ourselves, our own prisons, our own filth and shame and nakedness, our own poverty and laziness, our own delusions that make us hide behind our masks and avoid love and communion. They are the image of the reality of the true dependence we have on others for even our basic human needs him. If we look in the face of the homeless we know we too are holding cardboard signs that are perhaps a lie, and perhaps maybe are the desperate truth. When we get down to it, we avoid eye contact with the person holding the sign because his face is our mirror, if we look into it we might be convicted of who we really are: lonely, afraid, beaten, compassionless, merciless, unforgiving, judgmental, angry, respecter of persons, proud, stingy and ungrateful. To look into the face of the homeless is a two edged sword: in his face we see our face, and we see the face of Christ because the omnipotent, self-existent, eternal Creator of all took on our human flesh with all of its fallen limitations and needs. God entered the death imprisoned world as a hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless infant. Like all of us He depended on other human beings for food, drink, clothing and shelter and love, even as an adult, even as God.
St. Augustine said “Do not grieve or complain that you were born in a time when you can no longer see God in the flesh. He did not in fact take this privilege from you. As he says, ‘Whatever you have done to the least of my brothers, you did to me’.”
On that cold winter’s night Randy and I didn’t talk much about Jesus at Hobo Joe’s because we ate supper with Him. Since then I always keep a stash of dollar bills in my back pocket and in the ash tray of my cars to give to those who ask, even even if it is on a cardboard sign that’s lying to me. …and I always look them in the face when I give them something. The way I see it is, for a dollar I get to see Jesus and I’ve just purchased the clearest mirror on earth.
The homeless do not merely hold a sign, the homeless person IS the sign. He is the sign of the Kingdom come upon you and he will be with us always because we always need to be pointed toward the Kingdom. Will you turn away. Will you obey the sign and walk the path toward it?
(Thanks to Allan Boyd for the image from his blog on ministry to the marginalized and hopeless: http://thelivingend.wordpress.com/ please check it out.)