This is something I wrote in 2011. It’s a story. An example of CONTENT!
“Does anyone know who that is?” Joy asked.
Peeking between the vertical blinds, I thought I recognized a man as he approached the building. I left the table and flip-flopped a few yards into the dark office hallway to make sure the front doors were unlocked.
“Hello?” the man said.
The close voice startled me. I never heard the door open, but now there was a man less than two feet away from me.
Reek rolled off him. As we faced each other just inside the glass doors of the air-conditioned church office, I took in the full sight and scent of him. It wasn’t alcohol or urine, like you might expect. The vagrant’s thin green t-shirt and blue jeans were dense with the foul body odor that comes with sweating at least one full day in the sunshine. A matted gray ponytail stuck out the back of his dirt-caked white ball cap.
The four bell choir musicians in the next room were silent as they sat around the conference table and waited for me to say who was at the door. We met each Tuesday before our evening rehearsal to discuss the Lord’s Prayer with a study guide our congregation was using during the Lenten season. This week we focused on the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread.”
This day there was man who wanted something. I held my breath, met his light grey eyes and did not expect manners.
“Do you have any food I could have? Or any work I could do so I could get some money to buy some food?” he asked.
I stared and exhaled, surprised by his politeness. A deep tan stretched his wrinkled skin into tight lines across his face and arms. His lips were chapped and his short grey beard was uneven. Dry skin peeled around his ears and side burns. I tried again to discern the smell of alcohol, but was met with only foul body odor.
“I haven’t eaten in a while,” he continued.
His voice was smooth and calm. He might be in his early sixties. Grey eyebrows shot into the shade of his cap as his eyes hoped for an answer. I looked down. His sneakers were grey and battered, the broken laces knotted like my throat. Everything I wanted to say to him seemed stupid.
I was a volunteer director for a puppets ministry there for kids, ages 4th grade through high school. We made a video the previous week to promote the food drive. I had produced a 30-second video with 20 creative young volunteers, no budget, donated equipment and software, but I felt helpless when confronted by one guy who didn’t fit in my faceless idea of compassion.
The bell-choir group had just discussed the idea that we pray for “our” daily bread, not “my” daily bread. By our faith, we are connected to all people. We had just reviewed Martin Luther’s definition of bread, which was more than just food. “Bread is a metaphor for the material necessities of life,” wrote Henry F. French, the author of the book. We had just discussed French’s question, “When it comes to people suffering for want of ‘bread,’ do you agree that it is a problem of distribution and not scarcity?
So now a guy is standing here asking me for bread. Seriously, God? Is this real? Am I being Punk’d?
He looked so sad. I imagined him as a little boy, like my son. He was once someone’s baby. I wondered how he’d come this far, not just in his long walk to this church which is tucked away between waterfront neighborhoods, about two and half miles from the nearest bus stop, but also from his birth, childhood and the life he led up to the moment when he asked me for food.
I knew there was a table in the church lobby where we had collected cereal and toothbrushes for the free clinic, but I wasn’t sure if the items had already been delivered.
I wanted to ask him his name and get him some dinner. How long had he gone without food? Where was his family? Could we pray for him? He looked like he needed more than a meal. Maybe a hug?
My brain pounded objections. Hug? Am I nuts? He stinks! What if he will just trade whatever I can find here for booze or drugs? What if he’s dangerous? What if he abused someone? Don’t get involved!
Someone in the other room shouted that there was an information card on the counter for places he could go. I grabbed one and scanned it for the right phone number. It said, “Want to help the homeless? Give a hand up, not a hand out.” The graphic was of a circle with a slanted line through it over an illustrated higher hand that gave money to a lower hand. I did not want to show him this. I didn’t know if he was homeless. He asked me for food.
Nobody ever asked me for money or food when I lived in Ohio. In college there was a happy, clean bum on High street who rapped for change. He shook a plastic 32-ounce cup of collected change and shouted, “Help is on the way!”
The church I went to in Columbus was downtown. I used to walk through the neighborhoods with friends. We knocked on doors and talked to people. We asked if they, or anyone they knew, needed any help. We could provide resources and support.
But that was more than a decade ago. Now I belong to a church in a neighborhood with no bus stops.
“We can call 2-1-1 for you and they can help,” I said. He looked confused.
“I’m not sure if there is any food here we could give you,” I said. “I’ll take a look. Would you like us to call?”
I used the word “us” not just because I thought it was safer to have others involved, but it was also good to have others on whom I could blame my inability to help. I felt like I was lying to him. I wasn’t sure what food there was, but I was afraid to move.
I know where all the refrigerators are in this church. Would it be rude to give him someone’s leftovers? I felt like it would be stupid to find cereal and offer it to him without milk. My fears disabled my ability to think straight, so I followed the suggestion from the voice in the conference room.
“We donate stuff to a few of the places on this 211 hotline list,” I said. I covered the graphic on the card with one hand and pointed to the list with the other. I tried to keep my voice steady. “So maybe if we call them they could help you.”
He could tell I was scared. I could promote a food drive, but I didn’t know what to do when asked for help by someone who might benefit from a food drive.
“I don’t want you to feel awkward,” he said, comforting me. “I’m sorry. I’ll leave.”
I don’t know what I must have looked like to him as I stood there in disbelief and tried to figure out what to do.
He turned and went outside.
I walked back into the conference room.
“He wanted food,” I said, deflated. I wasn’t angry at whoever suggested we give him an information card. I just wanted them to tell me the exact location of some acceptable food. I stared at my book on the table, which asked the question, “Any suggestions for fixing the distribution problem?”
“Do we have anything?” I demanded.
“There is a box of cereal bars on the table in the lobby.” Joy said. “I just brought them tonight for the food drive.”
I tore out of the conference room, down the hall, into the church lobby and to the table where I grabbed the box of cereal bars. I hurried to the nearest exit, looked out, and saw the man walk down the church driveway. I hesitated and thought about another interaction. Do I want to do this?
I pushed open the door and yelled.
He turned around and waited as I walked down the driveway to meet him. It felt good to be outside in the evening sunlight.
“We found some food,” I said. I handed the box to him.
“Thank you,” he said. “Peace.”
He turned and walked away.
“Yeah,” I said. “Peace.”
I went back in the building and we got back to our study. I sat down to listen. I couldn’t talk because the muscles in my neck were too tense.
It felt like Jesus Christ had asked me for bread and all I handed him was a box of cereal bars.