Saturday, February 2, 2013


Last night I met a homeless man named Jesse. He lives under a bridge that I drive right past on my way to work every day. He had wandered, ragged and alone, into the church gymnasium where my son plays basketball. It was before the game, and we were standing in the lobby of the rec center.

Jesse came in from the cold night carrying a thin trash bag, which seemed to contain his few belongings. He sat down in one of the leather-cushioned chairs circled around a coffee table in the center of the lobby. After a moment, he asked in my general direction about the popcorn in the downstairs concession stand. "Do you have to pay for it?"

"I think it's 50 cents a bag," I answered. He nodded and looked down again.

Another moment and he mentioned the popcorn again to someone else who was passing through the lobby. He didn't get much of a response this time, but it struck me that he hadn't dared to ask for the popcorn, even though it was becoming quite clear he wanted some and also quite clear that he had no money. I couldn't help myself. I quietly slipped down the stairs, reappearing a few minutes later with gifts from the concession stand: popcorn and a coke. If Jesse wasn't going to ask, I'd ask for him.

I sat down in the chair next to Jesse and tried to hold somewhat of a conversation with him as he enjoyed his salty snack. I asked him where he lives, and he asked me if I happened to know how cold it was supposed to get tonight. I told him I could check my iPhone, taken aback somewhat at the irony.

"It says there's a low of 30 degrees for the next couple of nights. That's pretty cold. You have something you can bundle up with?"

He nodded. Then he looked down and took another bite of popcorn.

I invited Jesse to join us downstairs for my son's basketball game. I thought it might give him a reason to stay longer before returning out into the cold. I was also beginning to appreciate his company. The thought occurred to me that this old, worn-down, black man could very well be Jesus. He said he would stay.

One of the myths, or conveniences, I hear about the poor or homeless is that they are under those circumstances because of choices they have made. I guess the idea is supposed to be that Jesse and I started out from basically the same place in life, and somehow I made mostly good choices and he made mostly poor choices. That's why he's under the bridge and I'm not. That idea, that Jesse's choices alone determined his poverty, is as ridiculous as reincarnation and carries with it the same implications: the poor deserve to be poor. Maybe they do. But then, so do I.

Someone, one of the young athletes perhaps, was celebrating a birthday. Someone had made a cake, and they were sharing it with the audience in the bleachers. Jesse asked for a piece this time. It is possible to be sad and happy for someone in the same moment.

My feet are always cold on nights like tonight. I have them curled up beside me in the living room chair, socks on, and still they are cold. My dog is sleeping comfortably on the living room rug. Jesse is under the bridge.

I don't exactly know why I'm not out there with him, but I know it has nothing to do with the choices I've made. It has nothing to do with how good I am, and it especially has nothing to do with what I deserve. It has to do with God's unwarranted, unearned mercy, which has followed me all the days of my life, even when I didn't ask for it. It's the love that sought me, even though I've strayed a thousand times. It's the grace that overflows my cup. And please, God, if You decide to pour any more of it on me, let it spill over onto Jesse instead.

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