I have done a lot of peopling today and now I am weary.
Last Saturday, I ended up in a conversation with one of the women who comes to get food at my friends’ outreach at the park. You can tell that at one point in her life, she had more going on for herself than she does now: a stately woman, she carries herself with an air of aristocracy. Tall, with skin the color of caramel and eyes just a tinge lighter, she reminds me of my Nana’s people. Proud, fierce women. She claims to follow Buddhist teachings and scoffs at the very notion of Christianity because, in her experiences, Christian churches are the only ones ‘that ask for money’; ‘I get all I need from my Temple and they never ask for a dime,’ she loudly proclaimed as she ate her third (or fourth) helping of the morning’s fare that had been supplied by my friends, who are a (Korean Presbyterian, which last I checked falls under the Christian moniker) pastor and his wife. ‘But,’ she added more reasonably, ‘I have friends from all faiths, including Christians.’
The volunteers from the church kept silent but their irritation was palpable. I stood there with my Way World Outreach ‘I Pray for San Bernardino’ shirt on and mumbled in my head to the Creator, who I had asked for an opportunity to give this woman some food for thought. Finally, she took a break to grab another bite of her food. I jumped in and said, ‘I would appreciate a favor: I am a Christ-follower but like you, am an individual. I am sure you do not like being lumped in with a group and it is not right to lump all Christians in as a group. You mentioned your Christian friends — do you lump them together as Christians, for their faith, or do you assess them individually, for who and how they are?’
We then embarked on a lengthy discourse about faith without works being dead; she knew that scripture and touted it as one of her favorites. She went on to talk about Abraham’s willingness to be obedient in the request to sacrifice his son and the whole ram in the bush business. I felt good about the conversation when we finally packed up the table and went our separate ways. ‘You are so patient,’ one of the ladies mumbled to me after we prayed.
‘No, it is not patience. It is what we are supposed to do: talk it out.’
I arrived late this week, having decided to not rush over there because my friends sometimes are late themselves and I have enough to keep me busy without sitting in a park by myself for 20 minutes. When I pulled in today, they were already serving the food. I saw the woman in question, who was across the field. As I said my ‘good mornings’, she walked over to me and quietly said, ‘I wanted to apologize for my behavior last week. I had a couple of unpleasant experiences and was a bit over the top. I meant no disrespect. I am usually a pleasant person.’
I replied, ‘More than usually — you are a pleasant person.’ I asked after her dog and she asked after mine. We talked about rescuing dogs and how the shelter near me is a high-kill. Her demeanor was much lighter today.
‘At least I was being loud about the Bible,’ she said with a wink.
As I drove away at the end of our time out there in the park, my heart dropped. I realized I have never asked her name.
However, in the street, everyone is family. Faces and soul spaces are recognized and remembered, more than a label.
Ms. V meant me. ‘You are gonna insist on calling me Pastor, aren’t you?’ I’ve told her more than once I am a volunteer and the only pastor there is my friend’s husband, who is in charge of the whole food giveaway.
‘I like that name for you,’ Ms. V insists after I had finished the closing prayer. ‘I am coming early next week so you can teach me how to pray like that. I do it and a few words fall out of my mouth and I get tongue-tied. I can’t do it as fast as you but I want you to teach me!’
‘The Creator hears you. Remember — the shortest prayer is “Help!”‘ I say. We laugh, she hugs me, grabs her box of food, puts it in her basket, and heads for the bus stop.
One of the other volunteers and I watch one of the new guys. He sat on the curb with his buddy; they were entertaining three little children, the oldest no older than three or so. She wears a bright pink ballerina dress. Her mom and dad are using an old sweater to wipe soup off the front of the middle child’s dress. The new guy sees the old sweater on the ground and offers it. The children’s mother says, ‘Oh, her sister doesn’t want it now because we used it to wipe the spilled soup.’ She tucks the baby, a little boy of about one, into the back of their vehicle, which serves also as their home.
The two girls crowd around the men, who give them the grapes and good oranges from the food they’d just received from the church. The taller of the two says to the oldest child, ‘Be sure to share those grapes with your brother and sister.’ The woman I am standing with and I exchange glances. I ask for another bag of grapes and take it to the men. ‘Oh, thank you!’ he said. ‘I can’t stand to see hungry children. I am glad their parents didn’t get mad. I’ve sometimes panhandled to get four quarters so I can buy a dollar cheeseburger from McDonald’s and if I seen a hungry kid at the bus stop or whatever, I’ve ripped my burger in half to give him some. One time the mom slapped my hand and told me not to. I was like, “Lady, your son is hungry! I’m not going to poison him!”‘
His friend chimed in. ‘It is good though, since you never know.’ He took the bag of grapes. ‘Thank you so much.’ He hugs me and his friend has tears in his eyes. I tell them to go to the Way World Outreach and they tell me the downtown location is near where they stay. They are both on disability and cannot afford food once they pay their bills. They have nothing with which to buy clothes and what they have on is well-worn. I tell them that the Way has a clothing and food closet and they are glad to hear it.
The first man is still adamant about hungry children. He points to the empty grape bag and looks toward the car with the family in it. ‘So I don’t read so good. But what I did was eat a few of these to see if they had seeds. When I saw they didn’t, I gave them to the kids. I wanted to check first to make sure because seeds can hurt them if they get swallowed. So after I ate some, I realized they were seedless!’ He was so excited.
It was time to leave. I invite the men back next week and into the closing prayer circle. The first man wants to come but isn’t thrilled with the idea of holding hands. ‘Do we have to touch?’ he asks.
‘Oh, you will be all right,’ his friend says as he grabs his hand.
My pastor friend, who always says his English is not so clear, gets me to do the closing prayer. I am thankful for the named and unnamed in the circle, for the city, for the church and its members who give regularly so the food ministry can provide a hot dish and take away items every Saturday morning.
We clap at the end of the prayer, bow to one another in Korean custom, give hugs around the circle, say a hearty ‘Buenos Dias’ to the Latino/a members (the church congregation is no longer only Korean), and go our separate ways. The homeless folks vanish in an instant, back to their spots around the park, over in the neighboring cemetery, or into their cars and RVs, as if they were never there.
By the Creator’s grace, we will all meet up again, the named and unnamed, next Saturday. I will look with anticipation to see those who bring their dogs (neither the couple with the peaceful pit bull or the couple with the beautiful pup they call Gorta, which I have discovered means ‘famine’ in Spanish, were there today) and those who show up empty but leave with at least a full belly and a smile.
That’s how love works.