The “Other” In Our Midst

A homeless man eats lunch in St. Vincent DePaul Community Center in Oakland, California (CNS photo/Greg Tarczynski)
For the past 18 months, I have seen a man pass our house in his wheelchair every week. He has long, dirty hair, lots of bags, and a bandaged foot. The first time we saw him was startling. If you remember, I previously wrote about how we moved into a suburban-ish area. We were unpacking boxes when we saw him move slowly past our window. He stood out. He wasn’t a twenty-something jogger listening to an iPod, he wasn’t two moms pushing their strollers and chatting, he wasn’t our neighbor walking his dog, he was a sick, slow moving man who, very likely, did not have a home. We stopped what we were doing and peered through our window until he was out of sight.

As time progressed, we figured out his schedule. He spends his time doing laps around our community. In the mornings I see him making his way along the running trails, in the afternoons I’ve seen him parked over by the lake, watching the waterfalls, and in the evenings he makes his way past our house. I never gave him too much thought. And if I did think about him, it was more out of curiosity wanting to know why he just goes in circles all day.

One day as I was driving to work I saw him and I remembered something my friend used to always say in college. She was always becoming friends with random people by using the line, “You know, I see you so often, I feel like we should be friends.” If she was going to run into the same people over and over again, then they were part of her community and she should get to know them. I saw that man for the 60th time and I thought, I see you so often, I feel like we should be friends.

And then I started to think of what would happen if I actually engaged this man in conversation. What if he was dangerous? What if he was armed? What if he was crazy? What if he truly needs help, then I’d have to do something? What if he didn’t have a place to stay? Am I going to have to let him sleep in our home? What if it was too late for him to get to a shelter? Would I have to shelter him? For how long?

And I have wimped out over and over again since that day. Every time I see him, I come up with an excuse: I don’t want to talk to him right in front of our house, then he’ll know where we live; I’m alone, I better wait until a time when Brandon is with me just in case. Excuse after excuse.

I’ve tried to convince myself that surely other people have offered him help. There are hundreds of other families that live in the area that see him every week, too. Surely they have made sure he is taken care of. Surely they have offered him a kind word. Surely they have shown him love and compassion.

But what if they haven’t? What if they are like me and think about it but never do it? What if everyone thinks that someone else is taking care of him but no one is?

I haven’t really been able to stop thinking about him. I’ve been stewing in guilt for not reaching out to him. A vital part of Jesus’ story was how he was rejected over and over again by people who thought he was dangerous, different. They did not open themselves up to his love, they only saw a stranger.

I know better. I know Jesus told us when we help the least among us we help Him. So how can I continue to shut the door in Jesus’ face? I don’t even have to go out to find the least among us to help. He literally passes our doorstep most days.

After Mass on Sunday I finally got the impetus to stop thinking about this man and actually meet him. It was midday so we drove around the waterfall area. Not there. We drove his usual route. Not a trace. Then we thought, maybe he went to get some food, so we drove around that area. No dice.

The new year is a time to take stock of how we are doing. We need to let ourselves be wrapped in the mystery of the Incarnation, not just at Christmastime, but throughout the whole year. God became man not so that our lives would be convenient. Not so that we would only have to do things that made us comfortable. But so that we could have the chance to lift the veil of darkness and see God the way we are supposed to see God — everywhere, in everyone.

Jesus entered into our humanity to proclaim our salvation through love and compassion, not sometimes but always. To the beggar, to the outcasts, to the migrants, to sinners, to people of power, to people everyone hated, to the poor, to the dirty, to the sick. He didn’t come so that we could live nicely packaged little lives. He came to show me that if I truly love Jesus then I must truly love this man. Not on my terms but on God’s terms.

So here’s wishing you a new year full of love — both the uncomfortable and comfortable kind.