Monday, January 26, 2009

Man is Dust

Back when I was in college and he was homeless, Benedict taught me a lot about human dignity and what it does to a person to be stripped of it. There are many examples of interactions with him I could think of to show the lesson; I use this one because it was the night when I first started to hear him.

I sat at my regular table of my cozy, mountain-lodge-esque coffee shop near campus one winter night of my senior year, trying to let the rich smell of coffee evoke my journaling catharsis after an emotional fight with a close friend. Weary of writing, I glanced out the window and suddenly saw dear Benedict waving cheerfully at me from outside. Though his weariness broke my heart more than any of the other homeless people I had come to know, his presence always lifted my spirit. Eagerly, I waved him inside, and he hesitantly acquiesced.

“I was just walking by and wondered if you’d be here,” he explained when he arrived at my table, cheerfully but nervously, as if he just ran into a dear friend in a closely-guarded prison camp. “I just came to say hi.”

“I’m glad you did!” I chirped enthusiastically. “Please sit down!” Benedict eyed the chair as if there were a bomb underneath, but he finally obeyed, sitting across from me uncomfortably.

“I just came to say hi,” he repeated as if I were demonstrating my not having heard him the first time.

“Have you had anything to eat tonight?” I asked my friend. “They don’t have a lot of food here, but I think they have some sandwiches and wraps, and certainly plenty of muffins and cookies.”

“I’m fine,” he asserted firmly, firmly enough that I knew not to press him, even though I knew that “I’m fine” often meant “I’ve gone without food before” when it was spoken by Benedict.

“Well then, can I at least get you something hot to drink? I know you don’t like coffee, but they have hot chocolate and tea, and they have an amazing apple cider...”

“I’m fine,” he repeated with a firmness that had a little more bite in it.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “It’s a cold night out there, and there’s nothing like hot drinks in a cold throat...”

“Stop!” he commanded, or perhaps pleaded, and I finally heard him. “You can’t do this. People will think I’m begging.” The last word came out in a near-whisper, as if it were unspeakably profane.

My hospitality collapsed into something more akin to childish whining, and like a toddler asking “Why?” I struggled to understand. “But you’re not; I’m offering. You’re my friend, and I come here and have coffee with friends all the time.”

Benedict softened his tone while maintaining his firmness. “I know that,” he assured me. “But...” he gestured around the room with his eyes.... “she doesn’t know it, and he doesn’t know it, and he doesn’t know it, and she doesn’t know it. They don’t see me as someone who might be your friend; they just see me as a lazy homeless person who wants their money.”

I knew he was right, and it broke my heart. I sat there sadly, fingering my coffee mug with a strange sense of shame, watching my friend fight to maintain the dignity that I never had to earn.

After a few moments of silence, Benedict tried to lift the mood. “One day, I’ll have a job. Soon. I promise. And in that day, we’ll sit and have coffee together. Okay?”


Any regulars on my blog have heard me talk about Benedict before, how the slow, up-hill battle of getting off the streets has been both heart-wrenching and hopeful in a time when change is a buzz-word that cynics like me may doubt. He has not been homeless for the past three years, but, with the economy the way it is and his 50-year-old body less capable of manual labor than it has been and his police record unjustly tainted with a felony, he is unemployed again for now.

I got a call from him last night.

“Guess what?” he asked enthusiastically. “I just got a nicotine patch! I’m ready to try to quit smoking.”
“That’s great!” I gushed, my spirit lifting to hear his joy.

“I want to ask you to pray for me,” he urged as his tone got more serious. “This is very important to me. Can you ask your family and friends to pray for me too?”

I was struck as I hung up the phone that he doesn’t ask me to pray for him very often, though I frequently promise it anyway. He hasn’t asked me to pray that he’ll find another job. He hasn’t asked me to pray for the agonizing process of running through the bureaucratic obstacle course necessary even to learn how much he owes the government from old traffic fines and child-support from two different states that are accruing interest in the mean time. I pray for him regularly for these kinds of things, but he doesn’t ask for those prayers.

He asks for prayer for freedom from nicotine. He can only take one hurdle at a time, I suppose; freedom from debt or from unemployment dependency will come in time. But for now, he asks my prayers as he tries to quit smoking. I think it touches his dignity somehow. For a man who has spent years being looked at as crack-addicted street litter, the need for freedom from a mild drug is more immediate than freedom from debt, the same way that the need to sit in my coffee shop as a friend and not a beggar had been more important than the need for food in his belly.

And he asks the prayers of my friends. And so I’m asking you to pray for him. Benedict is not his real name, but I’m sure God will figure it out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Em, Janathan here. I really appreciate how hard you try to listen and the humility you encourage in yourself to balance out the assumptions of "getting it."