Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The man with a fist full of quarters

BERKELEY, CA. -- I arrived Sunday night at San Francisco International Airport after a tedious day of highways, airports and airplanes, and very thankful that my flight to California was uneventful, thankful that there were no weather complications and thankful that my body and bag had arrived intact.

I boarded the BART train at SFO like I have so many times before, and then buried my nose in my Blackberry, catching up on the emails that had chased my across the continent while I was in the air. The train was mostly empty except for me and a few other weary air travelers.

We rode on past San Bruno and Daly City and into the Mission district of San Francisco, making stops along the way, picking up more passengers. As we cruised along, I tippy-tapped my e-mail replies on my Blackberry, oblivious to anything and anyone else around me.

Just then, an old man in the aisle walked up, leaned over and put his face a few inches from mine. He was gray, his face wrinkled, his clothes disheveled, and he held a fist full of quarters. I was startled. He asked me for money, shaking his open hand with the quarters he already had. I mumbled "sorry," and buried my nose back in my Blackberry. The the-old-man-with-quarters moved on to the person in the next seat and then onto the next car. He didn't waste much time.

A few minutes later, a BART Police officer came striding through our car, probably looking for the the-old-man-with-quarters. For a moment I thought to say "he went that-a-way," but I said

I've encountered many street people and panhandlers over the years. They don't scare me but I am not usually taken by surprise either. I almost never give money, but I almost always do more than just mumble "sorry." My gift can be a smile, a hello, or asking "what's your name?" A few street people I've gotten to know.

But the the-old-man-with-quarters caught me up short in my own shell; I had slipped all too quickly into the familiarity of my surroundings.

Maybe I notice more in Charlottesville, Virginia, because it is still so unfamiliar to me. There is a street person who is a regular on our corner in Charlottesville. Call him "Joe" (I know his real name). He is heavy-set, he has bad eye sight, usually smells and has drinking issues. He is a musician and he is a survivor. He is always polite, he knows a lot of things and talks a lot. "Joe" came to church on Sunday to our smaller 8 am service. I was happy to see him, happy he is surviving the grinding winter.

After the 8 am service, and after chatting with "Joe," I left the church and drove two hours to Dulles airport to catch my flight and quietly congratulated myself that "Joe" feels comfortable enough to come to my church once in awhile.

So why did the-old-man-with-quarters on the BART train startle me? I could chalk it up to jet lag and travel fatigue, and that would be partly right. But it is more than that. The truth is that I wasn't paying attention to my surroundings, to the people riding with me in a BART train. They were as connected to me as anyone in an email on my Blackberry, truthfully more so in that moment.

My sin wasn't in my declining to give the-old-man-with-quarters any money -- I rarely do with any street people. My sin was in not engaging the-old-man-with-quarters as a human being. I even resented him for invading my train ("he went that-a-way"). Today I ask God's forgiveness for that.

I also ask forgiveness that we still have old destitute disheveled men who feel they have to get onto trains looking for quarters.

The San Francisco Bay Area is an opulent place, full of dazzling wealth, amazing restaurants, rich intellectual and cultural life, and it is breathtakingly beautiful. I am from here. I was born and grew up here; the water of the Bay flows in my veins and in my heart. I know its history and I am part of its history. My dad's ashes are scattered at the Golden Gate. I know this place better than anywhere else on earth.

But do I really? Noticing those on the fringes is still a challenge for me especially in the places I know best. Doing something about what I see is an even greater challenge. It is for all of us no matter where we are.

Riding along, I noticed an advertisement on the BART train for Riedel wine glasses with a caption that Riedel has the correct "messenger" for every grape variety. The City has so much wealth that people can buy a different shaped glass for every variety of wine in their collection.

Yet we still have the poor on our streets, not enough beds in our treatment centers, and we resent them for asking for a quarter. I would guess that the old-men-with-quarters are not particular about the "messenger" that brings them sustenance, wine or otherwise.

What kind of messengers are we? What kind of messenger am I? Leading a life of faith is not just about tending to my own interior spiritual development; it is about being the hands and feet of Christ in our own hurting world. We are the messengers. The good news is that this is not a challenge for us as isolated individuals but for the entire community of faith. We are called to do this together and there is great strength in that.

The prophet Isaiah 58:1-12 had something to say about this in Monday's Daily Office readings, and I leave you with this:
"Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am."
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I am in the Bay Area this week at a meeting at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and then attending to personal and family affairs. Please keep my mother, who is ailing, in your prayers. I may not post here as frequently as I usually do, but please check back here from time to time.

Blessings to all.



Christie said...

Blessings to your Mom and you, as well, Jim. And thanks for your post on this sad, yet important, topic. Sending good wishes your way....


Susan said...

Welcome back to California, Jim. I sense that some of your sensitivity to the way you behaved on BART was surfaced by your having so recently participated in and written about the ordination of deacons in your diocese.

Emily Guffey said...

Thank you, Jim. Beautiful post!

Love this Isaiah passage to bits. Gillian preached well on it at this past Sunday's 5:30pm liturgy, too.

Sarah said...

Thank you for your post on Father Carl. He was our first priest visitor when we moved to Danville in 1986. We quickly discovered that I had been baptized by the same bishop that ordained him in New Jersey. Over the past 25 years he has been a constant joy in my life. I will miss him.

Your mother is also in my prayers. I have many fond memories of her and your father at St Timothy's.
Sally Shea Potts