It has been a week now and I thought I would have had enough time to get my head around things, but that seems not to be the case. So, before my memory completely releases its grip on the details in lieu of some superfluous chunk of data, I figured I would at least get some thoughts and details blogged down.
There was an event in downtown Raleigh last Thursday. The name of the event was Project Homeless Connect and this was the first time for such an event in Raleigh. There were similar events being held Thursday in Durham and Chapel Hill — the other two points of The Triangle. The day was rainy but the turnout was remarkable; expected: 350 or so — served: over 500.
I had mentioned previously how inspiring I find the likes of the E’s among us. They are people who have an incredible heart for the homeless and feel obliged to build relationships with people who’s circumstances, choices and conditions have landed them in situations most of us, if we are honest, find uncomfortable; pitiful even.
E1 suggests getting to know the homeless by name. This has a way of validating their worth and is an important building block if there is to be relationship building. I was blessed by a message on a recent Sunday morning that reinforced this very thing. There really is something about our name. Try talking to someone and not look at them when you speak your name. Now, the thing is, people like the E’s appear to people like me to be specially wired for this type of interaction and relationship building. Let me say right here and now that I am not so gifted. However, I have never found a loophole or legal crack through which to escape when faced with our very specific instructions on how to treat our neighbors. What I needed was an intentional and purposeful ‘event’ within which I could ignore my typical hesitancies and connect to my neighbors.
This brings us back to last Thursday. My official function was that of a host. Hosts were people who essentially kept an eye out for people who appeared to need a dose of hospitality and have someone walk with them as they navigated the 60+ services represented there that day. Some hosts hung around the welcome tent and would tag along with someone as needed. Others meandered around and about the grounds, again keeping an eye out for someone in need of a friendly cohort. Then still others were making their way around the perimeter of Moore Square inviting people into the event. I did some of all three.
It was while I was completing my second or third lap of the square that I stopped to talk with K — the only other male at the particular training session I attended the week before. He quickly directed my attention to a man at the corner with what was likely his entire earthly collection in a wheeled traveling case and a dufflebag. K mentioned that he had talked to the man briefly and was not connecting, but felt strongly that the man needed to get into the event and hook up with some services. K asked if I would give it a try.
Have you ever stared at an answer to prayer face to face? It is not always the most calming sensation. I made my way over to the man. Throughout my bubbly small talk the man never looked at me. I began to wonder if he even understood what I was saying. He rolled himself a cigarette. This was cool as it suggested to me he was not in a hurry to make past tense of me. So, I stood there. Two or three times he looked up at me and once asked if I was a counselor. I replied that I was not, but I could introduce him to some people that would be able to offer him some help. He asked me my name.
I hope E1 will forgive me for completely mishandling point number 1 — ask them their name. I told him my name is Jeff and asked him his. He replied, “it’s not important.” “No,” I thought to myself. I guess it is not. Here I am regurgitating all kinds of good information and trying to ‘sell’ him on coming on in to the event and never even asked him the question so fundamental to our relationship from that point forward; “what is your name?” He finishes his cigarette and looks toward the welcome tent. With mercy, he tells me he’ll go check it out. I watch as he lays his belongings by a stone wall where it appears others have earlier. He makes his way into the tent and talks with the people there. I whisper a request for forgiveness.
I turn to face a young lady who was approaching a car parked at the corner. It strikes me as odd because I saw the three guys who got out of the car earlier. They were from a local barber school and were there to provide free haircuts. She was not one of them. I also thought it odd to carry a small printer on her hip. In her hand she held what looked like a small electronic device that she was entering information into. It then hits me. I walk over to her and smile. She displayed a polite smile herself. I asked, “is there anyway I can talk you out of this?” Her smile got the slightest bit larger but her answer was “No”. She placed the citation under the wiper and continued on her way. I head into the square.
I had the pleasure of asking a few other people whether I could help them find anything in particular and whether they were aware that there would be a complimentary packet of stuff given out at 3:00 that afternoon. They appreciated my offer but seemed to be doing alright on their own this morning. I don’t recall their names. As I walked, I ran into M from church who was carrying some coats for a lady she was walking along with. I also was able to briefly chat with J from church — another J — who works for one of the services. He was there for the day.
I make my way up through the center of the square and pass by the stand where the Mayor had earlier made a brief statement to kick off the event. Now there were people performing songs, reciting poetry and dancing on the small stage. I look over toward the larger trees to see another gentleman who’s name I do not know. His was a world in which he talked when and to whom he cared whether they were present or not. People walked by and eye contact was conveniently avoided. Passing by me was a nameless lady with a small dog inside her jacket; looked happy enough. I continue toward the welcome tent.
People began to gather at the large tent where lunch was going to be served. Everyone was given a bracelet that would get them a lunch. I size up the crowd gathering and observed an odd sense of community. Perhaps a community as a result of common conditions. Is that not the undergirding of most communities? I walk around the corner of the lunch tent and there is John. Yep, John. He is wearing a name tag and talking with another host. A young lady who informs John that he needs to grab a seat because they will quickly become hard to come by as the people gather. I grab two seats and invite John to sit. The other host bids her goodbye and returns to the welcome tent. There I am, sitting with John. “So, what have you been up to?”
John and I sit and chat for awhile. My questions were routinely met with, “shit, Jeff” or “hell no.” However, I realized that if I just let him talk, he was telling me a story; his story. He was telling me about his Aunt in Arkansas who took him fishing when he was eleven. John told me if his Aunt was awake, she was fishing. I also realized that the more I chuckled the more interesting the stories became. The couple of times I let out a hearty laugh John had a look on his face like he could go on for hours. We got hungry.
We ate some lunch and continued to talk. John was in the army and served in Vietnam. He commented that his life ended when he got off “that plane”. He used to see a psychiatrist/psychologist but all he want to do was give John pills; all kinds of colors. Some made him just stand around “staring at the walls.” I gave up trying to discern what parts of John’s stories were factual and what parts were enhanced. After all, that was not the point. He was a different person that the man I was speak at on the street corner. I asked John if there were any tents/services that he would like to check out? He said sure and rolled himself another cigarette.
We eventually did make our way down to the services he expressed interest in and that I also agreed would be the most beneficial to him. It was as we approach the people representing these service that something happened. John became someone else. He would ask the person representing the service a question. Often their answer was simply a clarifying question back to John. He would just repeat his original question with increasing antagonism. I looked at the other person with a look a parent may have when their child is acting up and will not respond to typical attempts to calm them down. Things got very uncomfortable quickly. John decided he would not visit any of the other services claiming that they were all shysters. He became very irritated at my attempts to gain control of the situation. He told me to leave. I attempted to diffuse the situation. He told me to leave. I thanked him for our time at lunch and wished him well. He asked me to leave. I left.
As I mentioned in the begin that I am still trying to process so much of what went on that day. I don’t know that I should expect to come to grips with it. Pray that our paths will cross again… John’s and mine.