A couple weeks ago, during the first full week of Lent, I saw a homeless man riding the Tucson streetcar. His belongings were crammed into six or seven grocery bags corralled over a stretch of about three feet. Clothing and empty plastic bottles were pushing out of the bags like butterflies trying to escape their cocoons.
On this cold morning during spring break, there were only three people on the streetcar: Me, a professorial type trying to not notice the homeless man, and the homeless man, a gray woolen blanket clutched around his shoulders.
I hopped on with a coffee I’d just bought at an overpriced downtown beanery, my work bag slung over my arm, extraordinarily grateful for the warmth of the streetcar. I recognized the blanket wrapped around the homeless man as one passed out by street ministers trying to keep their fellow humans from freezing to death in the six weeks Tucson has frigid weather. Those blankets are as much an identifier of the destitute as a “Hello, I sleep on the streets” name tag would be.
I wondered if this man was the same guy I’d seen sleeping in the 4th Avenue underpass a few days prior, his bare feet sticking out of the blanket, or the one I saw a month ago cuddled into an outside cranny of the Presbyterian Church, or the one passed out on the railroad overpass the day I thought I was taking a shortcut to the streetcar and wound up lost.
I couldn’t be sure because every street person is covered by one of those woolen blankets when sleeping and they tend – God forgive me – to all look the same. The blankets remind me of Joseph wrapping Mary as she rode the donkey to Bethlehem in the cold of winter, a tiny family seeking shelter when there was no room in the inn.
Sometimes, when street people ask me for money, I have no cash or I’m so low on it, I’m reluctant to share. Sometimes, I don’t want to give panhandlers money because I know it is just as likely to buy alcohol or drugs as it is food. And sometimes, I’m angry I’m being asked to give up money for which I’ve toiled long hours.
To street people, I’m sure I look rich. But they don’t know how hard my husband and I worked for our money, how we had to sacrifice mightily once we had children so we could live on one income, how I didn’t have a new car until I was nearly 50 years old, and how our hot dates were homemade popcorn and a movie rental for more than a decade.
All that said: That $3 coffee.
Plus, on the day I saw the streetcar man, I was freshly inspired from the best sermons I’d heard in at least five years, having just attended my parish’s mission. For three nights I heard preaching challenging me to see my fellow human beings as God sees them: Beloved. Worthy. Equal in dignity.
Over those three nights I was encouraged not only to be like Jesus but to see Jesus in the least of my brothers and sisters. And there he was, sitting quietly wrapped in a woolen blanket. There I was, my allowance burning a hole in my wallet, wrapped in the warmth of a fresh coffee.
I pulled out my wallet and saw a $10 and two $20s. I wanted to the homeless man the $10. Truth be told, I was hoping I’d find a $5 to give him. But God told me to give him the $20. So I waited until the streetcar was close to my stop then took the $20 out of my wallet and and held it out, saying, “Sir, here is some money for a hot meal and coffee.”
He looked up at me, then at the money, then up at me again before whispering, “Thank you,” and taking the bill. I glanced back as I was stepping off the streetcar and he was turning the twenty over and over in his hands, staring at it like it was a million dollars.
Lent calls us to prayer, fasting and alms-giving. God calls us to love our neighbors – and our enemies. Most days, like many flawed humans, I fail at all of this. But on that day on the streetcar, in that particular Jesus-among-us moment, I made a small step in the right direction.