It’s just one of those ministry days. A meeting here or there, a little pastoral care, some reading to prep for class, checking the calendar to make sure I’m not missing anything. And two encounters with homelessness that have gotten me to thinking but not drawing any conclusions.
Our congregation participates in a Portland project allowing people experiencing homelessness to sleep in their cars overnight in our parking lot. It’s not a great solution; it’s a pretty terrible one, but sometimes it’s the best choice some folks have. We work with a shelter that provides a temporary “home” for families and helps them find more permanent homes, and today I met with a family that will be our parking lot guests until a space at the shelter opens.
If you met these people at McDonalds or Safeway, you wouldn’t think twice about where they lay their heads at night. A mom, a dad, a rambunctious two-year-old boy, a sweet girl almost one and almost walking. They were on their way to renting-to-own a house; turns out it was a swindle, and they lost all their money. They’ve been sleeping in their car for six weeks. They go camping when they can so they can stretch out in their tent and let the kids run around outside. Mom and Dad are the biological parents of both kids. He’s had the same swing-shift job for three years. She is well-spoken and a very attentive and patient mother, taking classes. And they call their Xterra home, at least for now. We’ll provide them with a porta-potty, a designated parking space, access to showers and laundry, and prayers. And probably some diapers and gas cards and cookies, if I know my congregation.
This afternoon I was waiting outside the church entrance with the parents and some of the kids in our children’s choir. They are on their way to the local university to be real-live subjects for college kids studying to be music teachers. It’s become an annual outing, and the kids love it. Riding light rail, going to college, performing for young adults, plus pizza and a movie at the end. Woo hoo! Good times.
So we’re outside waiting when a man who is obviously homeless starts coming down the sidewalk. “Obviously homeless” – that’s telling. And judgmental of me. And descriptive. He had scraggly facial hair, random layered clothes that were stained and too loose. Shoes that have seen more than I have in my lifetime. He had that look in his eyes that made me want to usher all the kids inside. But I’m trying to be a role model here so we stayed and acted non-anxious.
He catches my eye and says something to me that I think is “what time is it?” I don’t have a watch or phone, and tell him I don’t know. He asks another mom there “what time is it?” She tells him 3:30. He says something else, and she is patient and kind and says, “I’m sorry, I don’t know.” Then he sees my husband, the co-pastor with me. He goes nose-to-nose with my husband, tricky because there is a cigarette (unlit) dangling out of his mouth. He gets a bit belligerant, and the kids notice. My husband very patiently, very calmly starts to move him along the sidewalk while the rest of us do usher the kids inside. Now my daughter is beside herself, worried that this man will punch her dad.
My husband comes back; he’s fine. He comforts my daughter. The kids all want to know about his guy. What’s wrong with him? Why did he act that way? I am blessed to have great adults around. We say things like “his brain works differently” “we don’t know what he thought he was seeing” “he’s someone who needs help”.
I don’t even know how to draw a lesson out of these encounters, except to say that many people wander, but not all of them are lost. But some of them are lost, and have been for a while, and it will take a lot more than cookies and kindness to help them find their way home.