Good morning Austin (and YOU…yes, you, over there in…
….you…over there in Japan…and Idaho Falls…maybe even New York, Canada or Los Angeles…!)
I’m going to be blogging for the next hour about poverty in Austin. I thought I’d start with this Christmas story
I wrote a few years back. By the time you finish reading this, I will be posting more live stuff! Want to keep you engaged
as long as I can in a world of distractions….
MY HANDS UPON YOUR FEET
A Christmas Story
by Sara Hickman
One of my favorite stories in the bible is when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. What a great lesson in humility. I try so hard to remember to follow it daily.
Recently, I went to the annual House the Homeless Sunrise Service on Town Lake. It was an early morning, about six a.m., and we gathered next to the water in the freezing cold, sipping coffee and waiting for the sun to rise. I would guess there were forty or fifty people this year. That is a good turnout, albeit a sad number when you consider how many people could have attended.
Of that number, I would guess thirteen of the folks were homeless. They are the ones who stick to the sidelines, stand behind the trees and bushes, look at their feet, stand alone. As the ceremony began, we asked everyone to move in closer, away from the running path. Last year one of the runners cursed us for being in his way, during a prayer. We won’t let that happen again, we say to ourselves. We are prepared for this one small thing, this outburst of disgust, and we won’t let it ruin our love this morning.
Over to the side, there is a makeshift table: here is hot water for tea, and muffins from the HEB, and rough, heavy blankets to take for anyone who needs one. I always notice people’s hands… the way they hold the coffee, sometimes shaking from cold, sometimes shaking with fear. The homeless have red, bruised, sometimes bleeding hands. Their cold is so deep, I can’t fathom how they stand it. But they smile this morning. Today they will be remembered, if only for a moment. They gracefully accept this gift.
They will hear the introduction by Richard, who runs House the Homeless, and they will hear a county judge speak out on the rights and needs of each homeless man, woman and child; they will bow their heads to the prayer presented by a local minister, and they will attempt to sing along when I play the guitar and sing on their behalf. When we get to the part of the ceremony where the names are read, a hush befalls our mixed group. Through my lashes I sneak a peak at the men from city hall in their nice suits, shoes black and shiny, standing next to a man in old, torn jeans and a filthy blue running jacket. How did we get here, I think, as I listen to 96 names and wonder why each of them had to die on the streets.
Some killed by cops, some killed from the cold, some just ready to die from boredom or lack of medicine or old age or no food or a drug overdose.
After the ceremony, we place carnations on a marker by the beautiful oak tree. The marker was created many years back on behalf of the homeless.
I wonder who stops to notice it when they are running by….
It’s time to go. The lone camera crew from Channel 8 left halfway through the ceremony. But we are grateful they came to spread the word: people are trying to make a difference. We care. When others see the story on TV later… will they care? Will they be moved to reach out to strangers and just say, “Hello. How are you this morning?” Simple words that change a day.
So, I am putting my guitar away. I am chatting with folks coming up to say, “Thank you” and “Nice job.” As I walk quietly to my car, a young man with strangled, dirty blonde hair approaches me. He is shy, I can tell from his body language. I can tell he wants to say something to me, but can’t find the words. I put my guitar down, as if I need to shift the weight, and I give him an opening, “Hello,” I say. His eyes look tired, and he thanks me, too, for coming to sing. He tells me he has seen me here the last three years, and how much my music means to him. I ask him his name. His name is James.
There is a bird singing as the sun creeps higher in the morning sky.
The pinks are turning to yellow, and I see steam blowing from our noses.
We stand, silent, for a moment. People walk past.
I ask James when the last time was that he had a shower. He smiles,
“I don’t recall.” I tell him, “Then come with me. We’ll get you cleaned up.”
He looks confused, as if he didn’t hear me correctly. I ask him, too, if he knows Richard, the man who runs House the Homeless. I tell him that Richard can help. We start to mosey over to Richard, who is in the middle of a story from a man who has been accosted by the police—what can I do? What can I do, Richard?, I hear him say—and we wait patiently until Richard finishes making little notes on a piece of paper. He raises his eyes to mine. His eyes are always twinkling, and it makes my heart happy to see this man who cares so much for others. I say, “Richard! This is James.”
There is an awkward moment, but then the two start to talk about why James can’t get his paycheck from the Army, how long he’s been on the streets, what does he need?
They are finally done speaking, and I remind James of the offer of a shower. “Come on with me to my house,” I say. I can see Richard’s shocked expression over this stranger’s shoulder. I give Richard a reassuring smile, a smile that says, “I know what I’m doing. Don’t worry….” But Richard tags along, now, I hear the anxiety in his walk, his shoes busting up the dust and grit.
I point to my husband’s car, and James and I head toward it. I wave goodbye to Richard, who is thinking I have lost my mind, this caring man who knows the dangers of the streets, and I am self-assured in the knowing that James is all right. How do I know? I just do.
We settle in the car. I take a moment to rev up the heater. It is that cold sort of morning where you feel ice in your lungs, and you play with the air: breathing in and out to watch the frozen rush of your breath, your every word. Only we aren’t talking, now. We’re just two people sitting in a car, waiting for warmth, wondering what will happen next.
I make small talk, ask James what happened to his gnarled, right hand.
It is missing two fingers. “It was the Desert Storm,” he says. The whole time we are talking, my mind races to my family and the sweetness of my daughters’ laughter, the warmth of having a home. The blessing, that I sometimes consider a curse!, of so many warm, clean clothes stuffed in my closet. The look on my husband’s face I am certain to see when I say, “Look! I brought a homeless man home with me!”
I open the back door and announce to Lance, “Honey, come meet my new friend, James,” and Lance strolls over, wiping his hands on a dish cloth, doesn’t even blink, and invites James into our home with a wide smile.
We show him to the bathroom, the soap, clean towels, and ask him to leave his clothes outside the door. I am amazed to discover he had on three shirts under that jacket, several pairs of pants, his socks old and worn through. I know he carries all he has on his back, but still… it never ceases to amaze me.
As his clothes are washing, Lance and I find some clothes to share. I fold them neatly, leaving them on a small table for him to find outside the shower.
I hum as I start up breakfast for our family: flapjacks, juice, eggs, bacon, coffee. I make the pancakes extra big today. The house starts to smell good, and iolana is wondering “when will we eat” and “who is this man?”
James comes out, we sit down at the table. I notice how long his hair is when it is wet, and how he has carefully parted it down the middle, held back by a girl’s tieback. He says grace, and crosses his chest. A good Catholic. We eat. The room seems to be charged with a giant secret, giddy and ready to burst open. I want to hold that secret forever: it feels like love on overdrive.
After breakfast, and James has insisted on cleaning up the dishes, we all pile in the car and go to church. James and I walk iolana down to childcare, and she cries when I say goodbye. I feel torn inside. I can sense iolana thinks this new man is taking me away, or perhaps it is just anxiety over a change in our routine. I reassure her, and as we cross the playground to head upstairs I am antsy, now, a mother’s need to stay.
More coffee, which is my third cup!, and lots of stimulating conversation in Sunday School about relationships. We head across the street. The morning service is fine, lots of music. I introduce James during our prayer time, and I worry I have insulted him by not saying anything about his homelessness. I worry about my worrying. I decide to let go and just be quiet, again.
After church, I take Lance and io home, and James and I head off to Target. We pick out gloves, and socks; jeans, thermal underwear and a hat. We have to get pants in the boys department: James is about as thin as you can get. He starts to feel uncomfortable about the money. I tell him to get what he needs, that I would rather spend this money on him, to know he is at least warm. We start to go nuts. We get two-dollar rain ponchos to hand out to other homeless folks, we buy him a little radio, a flashlight, a thermos, a sleeping bag….
At the checkout, I say, “Did we get everything?” He shakes his head “yes!” happily, a little kid, as if it is his first day of school. I ask, “Now, what about snacks for your backpack?” He runs over to the snack aisle while I hold our place in line. He comes back with a sack of lollipops! I have to laugh. I shake my head. He smiles, “I love lollipops!” I throw them in the basket, really laughing now.
Soon we ‘re back in the car, me, James and about six sacks full of stuff.
“Where do I take you?” I ask. “Well…” he starts. He stops. He explains to me how he lives in a building that is being demolished, right over at Palmer Auditorium. He watches the construction workers’ stuff at night, and they watch over his hidden goods (i.e., his backpack and some tools) during the day. It’s a good arrangement, he says. But soon he’ll have to move, so he decides we should go to a park where a friend of his has a tent.
The park is next to a playground that James tells me he and his friends built. They found scraps of tile and pieces of this and that, and it is a beautiful, funky little artsy park with a swing and a table. I slow the car down, turn off the engine. We hop out, head to the back of the station wagon, open the gate. As I hand him his things, he asks for two dollars for cigarettes. I only have a ten. I think, “Someone would think I am a fool! Lollipops and cigarettes.” I hand him the bags and the money. We hug good bye.
I watch James walk off into the woods, a strange sort of Winnie-the-Pooh, carrying bright white bags screaming TARGET. The woods seem huge and James gets smaller and smaller. He never turns back. I start the car and head home.
And the day goes on. And I realize: this is my gift to you. To be there for a man who has no one. To take the time to tell you I love you by showing a stranger the kindness you would expect of me. Maybe this is the best we can do, as humans, standing in life’s line, making choices of who we should talk to, what vacation we will take, how we save money for the future, or how we blow it on a night out, drinking with friends. But it’s all the unseen actions in between that bring us closer to who we are and who we can be.
So, thank you for being my friend, for taking the time to pick me up when I was down, for sending me love when I felt unlovable, for inspiring me by washing my feet with your tears and reminding me that it’s all going to be ok.