I am desperate for an answer that will assuage my guilt and brighten my mood. It’s more than that, though. I want an answer that will fix the problem of Michael’s homelessness, one that will ease both his pain and mine.
I have just gotten out of the 8:30 a.m. service at church when I meet him next to the bike rack. I like the peacefulness of worshipping next to young families and elderly couples who murmur and coo to one another in near whispers. I would have liked to carry this peace with me, undisturbed, for the rest of the day but now Michael is in front of me and I have no choice but to notice him. To notice pain amidst the beauty of early autumn where the cold is a relief, not a threat. To notice scarcity amidst the abundance of loafers that can pedal me back to the safety of my own home.
He tells his story to me quickly, but purposefully as we stand outside Bruegger’s Bagels – me with my bike helmet hanging off my arm and him with nothing in his hands or on his back. He is tall and broad but he is tired, tired of waking up at 3am from the pokes of police officers telling him to sleep somewhere else, tired of trying to find jobs only to lose them because he can’t show up on time, tired of being stared at when he walks into local businesses. He says being HIV-positive makes him tired, too, but he can’t afford the medicine.
Strangers like Michael typically unnerve me. When I was eight years old, a man exposed himself to me in a shoe store. I was sitting in the children’s aisle of Payless when he came up behind me and plainly asked, “Where are the men’s shoes?” I began to answer him before turning around completely. I didn’t know yet to be afraid of strange men with strange questions.
I remember hearing a young, male activist once talk about the need to know our neighbors, to go into their homes, to risk our personal safety for the sake of bringing Christ to the world, being Christ to each other. I wondered if he had ever been sexually assaulted, known the panic of walking the dog alone at night or entering a vacant bathroom stall at a rest stop. Another time I had been passed up for an internship because I admitted my fear of strangers on the application; the hiring committee deemed me too “fragile.” I began to wonder if my faith was too weak, too small, too fearful for what the Gospel required: radical hospitality.
Over brunch in an Adirondack chair, my husband reminds me that I am not called to be a single pilgrim in my community, that I am not obligated to solve the problem of homelessness alone, that I cannot privatize Michael’s pain by just offering him a place to sleep in my home. I know that there are institutions, albeit broken ones, set up to meet such needs. I know that many people without enough food or shelter or clothing choose not to avail themselves of these services. I am not particularly worried about looking like a fool or being duped by their pleas. I am only worried that fear over my female body will prevent me from serving in the Christian body.
In his book The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America’s Public Life, Parker J. Palmer writes, “As our privacy deepens and our distance from the public increases, we pay a terrible price. We lose our sense of relatedness to those strangers with whom we must share the earth; we lose our sense of comfort and at-homeness in the world.”
I agreed to take Michael to get some breakfast. But when he asked me for money at the end of our time together—he has exhausted his allotted time at the shelter, he explained, I shook my head. He reached out for a hug goodbye and I didn’t hesitate this time—his body at once muscular and soft in a pink tank top. I was surprised that he smelled so good.
I am surprised he smelled like homeness.