August 31, 2017

Under the safety net in Grand Rapids

It was an out-of-nowhere impulse—I just had to spend the night on the streets with the homeless folks we had been seeing in Grand Rapids. Something seemed incongruent. A church group proclaiming the virtues of simple living was staying in expensive lodgings, while across the street were people sleeping in the park and along the river.

Actually, this compulsion was a work in progress dating back to my first Annual Conference in Wichita, Kan., many years ago. I went with others from the congregation I attended at the time. We were approached by a beggar, and one of our group lectured about how we could not give him money that we knew he would spend on alcohol. Not supporting someone in a destructive habit seemed right, but something inside me made a mental note: “Sounds right, feels wrong.”

A few years later, when I taught my first high school social studies class, I invited a guest speaker on alcoholism. He explained how for some alcoholics on the street, getting that next drink is a matter of life and death. Sudden withdrawal can cause DTs and death. I witnessed this the next year, when a lifelong alcoholic was put in a nursing home and experienced sudden withdrawal from alcohol. He almost died before doctors figured out what was going on.

The “don’t make eye contact” advice about walking near beggars and street people also seemed to make sense. Looking them in the eye may indicate a willingness to be taken advantage of. If you give to one, where does it stop? But when I was at Annual Conference in Columbus, Ohio, I wondered, “Why not stop and actually have a conversation with the person, and listen to their story?” Over that week, I met some of the most interesting people, and felt very comfortable talking to them.

In Grand Rapids this year, I walked around a gazebo-like shelter in a park, where three men were sitting. I issued a warm greeting as I walked by, and was almost on my way when the impulse hit. I just had to turn around and engage the men.

One man had a long beard, similar to the old-time Brethren type. I found out that he went by the name Waldo. When he learned I was with a church conference, he told me one of the attendees of a church conference the previous week had lectured him about the evils of drinking.

I asked what he did when it got extremely cold. Could he go to a shelter? He said that occasionally he would, but preferred not to. He had a friend in a trailer park where he could “crash” in emergency situations. He usually slept on the sidewalk under the Interstate bridge.

A few years ago, he spent three months in jail for non-payment of traffic tickets. He did not complain as he got free room and board. He figured it cost the town more to put him up for three months than the money he would have paid for the tickets, which of course he did not have.

I found he had been on disability. I struggle with giving disability to those who could possibly work. However, who would hire him? I asked myself. Would I, if I were a boss and had other good applicants?

At no point did he ask for money or food.

I departed after a while, but later that day dropped off hamburgers and fries for him and his friends. They were most gracious.

The next day, when I brought some more food for Waldo and his friends, I asked, “How would it be if I camped out with you tonight?” His answer caught me off guard. He did not answer directly but explained that a veteran who had heart trouble, and who was told by a doctor that he could die at any time, wanted to sleep in Waldo’s area. Waldo was trying to get rid of him out of fear that he would die there. I took this as a no, and spent the night at the motel.

Conversation the next evening got interesting. One of Waldo’s friends told me his favorite Bible verse was 2 Corinthians 5:17, and then quoted it perfectly. He also told me that his favorite book of the Bible was Job, and gave me a good summary of the book. He explained how his father had died suddenly when he was 16. He went through a time when he was mad at God. He then had to live with his mother, who was an alcoholic. He knew she loved him, but she could not care for him. After many years, he concluded that you can’t blame God for your trials. I asked him where he spent his nights, and he told me he went to the Trotter House. One of the service projects for Conferencegoers was at Mel Trotter Ministries.

That night, the compulsion set in again. “No is not an acceptable answer,” I heard. “You have to spend the night on the street.” I told my wife, and she gave her usual response: “Do what you think you have to do.” Interpretation: “I think it’s crazy, but I know you’re going to do it anyhow.”

Actually, I had no worry of being bothered by any of the street people. I departed with my game plan, pillows, a comforter, and a lawn chair. My wife said the lawn chair was cheating, but I replied that Waldo had all kinds of things on the cart he toted around. As it turns out, I didn’t use it anyhow.

I walked by the gazebo and people were already asleep there, but no one who looked familiar. I hated to intrude. I went by the statue where many stayed, but those folk did not seem to be ready to settle in for the night. I decided to go along the river path, where my wife had seen some makeshift camp sites. There was no one there. Perhaps they just stayed there during the day and went to shelters at night. I finally decided to slip in with the gazebo group. I quietly claimed my space without stirring them.

It was then that I realized my little game would not in any way make me at one with them. I knew that my rules allowed me to drop out of the game at any point, and return to my motel. If I did make it through the night, I would have time to take a little nap and shower before returning to the “real” business of the church. It was a beautiful summer evening—no thunder storms, no freezing temperatures. Mine was simply a camping out venture that happened to include homeless people.

The concrete was indeed hard, and I have never been able to get a good night’s sleep on hard ground. However, I must have been quite tired and I did manage to get some intermittent sleep.

In the morning, I felt embarrassed at having imposed upon the group. They got up at around six. They went to a nearby park restroom. I started collecting my items and was ready to leave as they returned. My greeting was a simple, “The concrete is indeed hard, isn’t it?” They politely agreed, and I left. On my last day in Grand Rapids, I had to hunt for Waldo.

The park staff had fenced everything off for the evening fireworks display. I finally found Waldo under the bridge. I asked his plans for the day. He had to walk across town to pick up a few items, and then was going to find a spot in the park to listen to the music and watch the fireworks.

I brought Waldo one final meal, and had prayer with him. I told him that our Conference would be back in three years. He said he would be there.

I will remember him, because he was a big part of this Conference for me. However, for him I was simply another passerby—perhaps a welcome guest, perhaps merely an intrusion into the daily routine of life on the streets.

Gary Benesh attended Annual Conference as a Standing Committee delegate representing Southeastern District. He is an ordained minister and pastor of Friendship Church of the Brethren in North Wilkesboro, N.C.