“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Last night I was supremely humbled and nearly moved to tears. I have never been one to use the phrase, God works in mysterious ways, nor do I even like it. It seems too hokey to me. But here I am thinking it is appropriate to my experience last night.
It was Friday evening and I had planned on going out by bike to feed and converse with the homeless or street people. As you likely know, if you’ve been to this blog prior, I do this on occasion but lately I’ve been doing it more intentionally as part of a project for a course in which I am currently enrolled. With this said, I have to admit I just wasn’t feeling it. That’s okay, I suppose, but it is the truth. For a variety of reasons I simply felt spent, as if I had nothing to offer. Nonetheless, I loaded my bike with some bottles of water and bags of chips and headed out.
I pedaled and coasted slowly downtown and stopped at Fireman’s Park, which is a small patch of greenery near the bus station and Cathedral Park. When I arrived there were people on many of the benches, and most looked as if they could be homeless or on the verge of it. Not speaking with anyone, I stopped at an empty bench, parked the bike, and pulled out a book to read. The book, Instructions to the Cook, A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a life That Matters, is about a Zen community that started a bakery, among other ventures, in and around New York City as a way to serve the homeless. But, as the subtitle suggests, it is also advice on living a life that matters.
Reading was inspiring me, and glancing up from my book I noticed a guy sitting opposite me, maybe 20 feet away, was reading also. Just as I noticed this a woman approached him. I couldn’t hear their conversation but she had animated gestures and I’m assuming she was asking him for money. He didn’t give her money but instead handed her his book. It wasn’t until then that I noticed he was reading a bible. They talked a couple minutes longer and she walked away looking at the bible in her hands. I wondered if the book would offer her any solace.
Then a few people got up and started to walk past me. I turned to see where they were heading. There was a car parked with its trunk opened. Two guys were handing out plastic bags filled with something. A woman passed me and as she did I asked what they were handing out. “Food,” she replied. “Come on, hun,” she added, “they won’t stay long.” She thought I was homeless and was helping me get food.
Wanting to speak to the people handing out the food, I packed up my bag, strapped it to my bike, and began to walk towards the car. It’s interesting, I thought to myself, I’m a city guy who seems to blend in easily. Whether I’m in NYC, Toronto, or even Paris, people seem to assume I am a local and ask me for directions. It was at this point when I looked at my bike with a bag of my personal stuff strapped to the front and chips and water in a basket on the rear, that I realized how I could be mistaken as homeless.
When I approached the car I stood to the side of the line, waiting for everyone to go through so I could speak to the two guys. As I stood there another woman, who was now at the head of the line, looks over at me and says, “Are you a first timer?” A bit taken aback, all I could stammer was, “Yes.” Then she looks at one of the guys handing out food and says, “Give him some first, he’s new here.” Holding up my hand in a sort of protest, I was handed a bag of food, “Here you go, brother,” was what he said when he handed it to me. I thanked him and the woman, who now took her share and began to walk away, and I stood there waiting for the last of the people to go through the line.
There was no longer me and them, it was just us, and it felt odd—but extremely humbling—to be on the receiving end.
Just as the last person went through the line, and they were starting to pack up their things and close the trunk of the car, another person came up. He must have been a regular because they spoke to him by name and apologized that they did not have anything left. Awkwardly, I handed him my bag which he readily accepted.
After introducing myself to the guys I found out that they are with a group called Buffalo’s Good Neighbors. There’s a variety of people who help out, they told me, and they are there once or twice a week. They just want to help people out, he added. I asked if I could take their photo and they reluctantly agreed. I gave them a card and shook their hands before I parted. When I asked them their names, the one whose hand was still in mine at the time, looked me in the eye, smiled, and said, “My name is Anonymous.”
When I walked my bike back through the park and approached the opposite side, I could see some sweaters laid out on a bench and a guy holding one up to his chest to check the sizing. I asked him where the clothes came from and he told me, “Church people bring them.” I looked at them and could see that they were new shirts. “Go on,” he added, holding the sweater towards my chest for sizing, “they’re free, one will fit you.” I thanked him and hopped on my bike and rode the short distance to Cathedral Park. This is the park which is home to the homeless Jesus statue.
There were three people in this micro-park and the first that I noticed was a man sleeping on a bench. It would be impossible to miss the similarity to the sleeping man to that of the Jesus statue which were only a few yards apart. I pulled up to the other two people and asked if they wanted some water and chips. “Yes, please,” they both seemed to say in sync. After handing them each bottles of water and rummaging in the bag of chips to find the type they liked I could see that the sleeping man was awake and now facing me, so I called over and asked him if he, too, would like some water and chips. He didn’t look great as he approached so I asked him how he was doing. “I’m okay,” he said, “but I’ve got a summer cold that’s kicking my butt.” This is probably why he was sleeping covered up on such a warm evening, I thought. I can’t imagine being homeless and sick. When I’m sick all I want to do is lay in my bed or couch. This guy had a bench.
I sat down on one of the benches and talked with the other guy for a few minutes, just chitchat about the weather, etc. Then as he was finishing his bag of chips he holds up the remaining two, crumbles them in his hands and sprinkles them on the ground for the birds. “They gotta eat, too,” he said with a gleam in his eye as he looked at me.
When I began this evening I was tired. I had been up since 4:30am, it was the end of a long work week, and I was not feeling particularly compassionate. But the series of events that transpired changed things, and in a way changed me. There was the woman who encouraged me to get in line for food, the other woman who let me go ahead of her because I was a “first timer,” the guy who was helping me pick out free clothing, and now this guy sharing his food with birds like some modern day St. Francis. My heart, which in some ways was hardened earlier, was now malleable and split wide open. The light, which is always there but sometimes difficult to see, burst forth and shone not only in the cracks of my own heart but also in those who I met this evening.
So this is what happened on a particularly humid and windless spring evening in two downtown parks which, in many ways, woke me up to life right in front of me.
“It is in giving that we receive.”