S E P T E M B E R 2 0 1 5
I met a homeless man the other day named Zack. He was sitting cross-legged against the wall of a bank. He had long grey hair and wore a necklace of beads and porcupine quills above a faded cowboy shirt. His sign said he was a 72 year-old vet. After talking a while, we discovered we both were born in the same place, Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver, he in 1943 and me in ’44. We shook hands at that, as if it somehow made us brothers.
He told me stories about his life, all of them having to do with God’s grace in taking care of him when he was in danger in Vietnam and in the States. He told how God opened the wisdom of the Bible to him, but that God hadn’t stopped there. When Zack was later given a book of the Buddha’s teachings, he asked God if it was okay to read Buddha’s book. God told him it was fine. So he read that book and found the same truth in it he had found in the Bible. Then it happened again when someone gave him the Bhagavad-Gita, and again when he was given a copy of the Quran.
“God keeps teaching me,” he said. “And he takes care of me, and I take care of others as best I can. You know, I never know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but I know I’ll be all right.” Then we said goodbye and I gave him ten dollars, much more than I usually give. “You see what I mean?” he said.
Zack’s faith filled him with an inner strength that was contagious. It was the same with his embrace of diverse people and beliefs. I went away feeling uplifted by his spirit.
Last winter I picked up another homeless man hitchhiking on a forlorn stretch of road in the desert of southern Colorado. I had been enjoying driving alone, listening to Schubert’s Trout Quintet, and didn’t want to stop. He was obviously homeless, with several coats on, long matted hair, a sleeping roll and backpack with boots and things hanging off it. But as I was about to pass him I remembered once being in the same position, hitchhiking in the middle of the Nevada desert, the rare cars taking no notice of me. So I stopped. After he loaded his gear in the back seat and sat down next to me I was sure I had made a mistake — the car filled with the smell of unwashed body, unwashed clothes, and wood smoke.
But over the next two hours I heard his story, and came to feel blessed to be in his company. His name was Reed. He too was a vet, had been wounded, came back home and started drinking heavily. He got into hard drugs, his wife left him for another man, and finally he tried to kill himself. That’s when he found Jesus and his life changed.
For the past eight years, he said, he’d been traveling up and down the West, on this same route, from Phoenix, Arizona to Cheyenne, Wyoming, visiting a network of vets who live in towns and cities along the way. Most of the guys he visits live alone, some of them banged up physically from the wars, others mentally unstable. Reed stays with each of them for a few days or a few weeks, helping out, fixing up their places, doing chores. He doesn’t ask for any money; he gives what he can and then moves on. A homeless angel.
The UN has announced there are now 60 million refugees and internally displaced people on the planet, even more than during World War II. All are homeless. Many are trying to migrate to wealthier, more peaceful countries. We don’t know what to do in response to this heartbreaking invasion. We’re afraid. But these millions are people like my two friends — ordinary people put through hell, trying to keep faith and take care of each other.
The enormous migrations now flowing across the world are a problem that’s not going to go away. We in the wealthy countries can either respond from fear — build more walls and isolated tent camps — or we can respond with love. After all, the homeless of the world are members of our human family, and it could happen that we, or our descendants, might one day join their ranks.
Perhaps we can take a lesson from the ecumenical embrace of other traditions and other people shown by Zack, as well as from his own deep faith that we all can get through this in a good way. And we might take another lesson from Reed, giving support to those in need as generously and creatively as we can imagine.
Many homeless migrants will want to return to their home countries when the disruptions that forced them out come to an end. Others will want to make new homes with us. Can we share with them what we have, and in doing so find the faith, generosity, and skills needed to make good homes and safe lands, for all of us?