What I Learned About Myself from a Homeless Man

Photo by Dimi Katsavaris on Unsplash

I sat at the one open table in the synagogue foyer, while my husband, Brian, went for coffee. The clean-cut occupant seemed uncomfortable when I teased that I’d share my Sunday paper if he would let us join him.

He replied tentatively, saying, “Of course. This table is yours, not mine.” It struck me as a bit odd, but I sat down anyway.

I plucked out the Sunday Review. My new table-mate didn’t touch the rest and instead fiddled with his phone battery. I felt rude reading while he wasn’t, so I offhandedly asked him if he had kids in Hebrew school. That was why we were there. It was the last day of Sunday school for the year.

He looked down and didn’t answer right away. I noticed he was wearing a white t-shirt and a navy-blue hoody over his wiry, muscular frame. Had I paid more attention, I would have processed that his clothing wasn’t weekend dad-wear. “No. Well, I do have a son. He’s six. I haven’t seen him in five years,” he said.

Just then Brian arrived with the coffee.

I grew up Catholic. My youth groups in high school and college encouraged volunteering and serving others. They gave me ample opportunity to come face-to-face with those experiencing adversity. I’ve served in a food kitchen, visited nursing homes and worked doing bible study with developmentally disabled adults.

My husband had never engaged with a recent parolee or eaten breakfast with a homeless person. The volunteer activities he took on as a youth were focused on fund-raising, requiring no face-to-face work. While my husband is the first person to offer cash to the homeless people we see on the street, I knew he hadn’t had any experience spending an extended amount of time with someone who was really down and out.

We talked about that difference between us later. He noted that Jews don’t have a Jesus to please, so it doesn’t matter if you send money or provide the service yourself. It’s a mitzvah just the same. I’d felt, as a kid, that in order for it to really count I needed to interact with those who I was serving. Somehow seeing homelessness or poverty up close would do something for my character. He laughed and said that maybe Christians get extra credit when they provide the actual service themselves.

Brian sat down with us and gave me a look like, “Do I know this person?” I shook the man’s hand and introduced us both. He said his name was Juan. He inhaled deeply and avoided my gaze. He told us he was homeless and had been so since he was released from prison a month ago.

I felt a flash of discomfort and possibly fear. I could feel Brian tense. I set the unread paper down and did the opposite of what my autonomic response was signaling me to do, which was to make a polite excuse and leave. Remembering I was safe in a public place with my husband, I looked Juan in the eye and said, “I’m glad you’re here and reaching out. Have you talked to our Rabbi?”

Juan relaxed a bit and said he had. Rabbi had comped him a bagel and a couple of sodas. He’d asked our Rabbi for help finding a job. I nodded at him and this encouragement seemed to open a floodgate. He told us his life story. He started by saying that he just needed to stop drinking. Alcohol was his main problem. He’d get drunk and then get into fights with people on the street. That’s why he’d been in and out of prison for most of his life. His parents weren’t present for a lot of his childhood. There had been foster homes. He told us how hard it was to find a job after being in prison. He was willing to do any kind of work, construction, fast food, whatever he could find. He was trying desperately to stay off the drink. He had a bike, so he could travel fairly far for work.

I felt like a fraud agreeing that jobs were hard to find. I hadn’t experienced unemployment in more than a decade. I’d never faced that number of cards stacked against me. Not even close. I’m post-graduate educated and well-networked. But I defaulted back to my Catholic volunteer training, demonstrating that I was listening by paraphrasing what Juan said back to him and offering words of consolation and hope. I wondered what in the world Brian was thinking. Was he there—nodding in agreement with my words—because he wanted to be or was he simply protecting me.

The three of us talked for nearly 45 minutes, about faith and religion and the way life works. You’re up. You’re down. Juan would take breaks in the discussion and wander off to the bathroom. I felt alarmed because he used the bathroom that the kids in Sunday school were using as well. When he came back, I watched him closely for signs of intoxication.

As we got close to the time that the kids would be released from class, the conversation stalled and Juan flushed. He stammered a bit and then asked us for money, telling us he needed to get his phone turned on. It was hard to follow up on work without it. I felt a sharp blow of disappointment, though not surprise. Brian handed him the contents of his wallet.

We wished him well, then picked up the kids. Later, I asked Brian how he felt when Juan asked us for money. He said he felt disappointed too. I recalled my lightning flash decision to keep my purse closed, though I had cash as well. It occurred to me that Brian’s disappointment was because he wanted Juan to be a saint—to not ask for money—while mine was because I would have preferred to offer him some kind of personal comfort besides cash. I wanted to be the saint.

Categories: Judaism, Life Lesson

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