“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” – Hebrews 13:2
In conversation one evening at a recent St. Luke’s potluck, a man with grizzled hair and distracted face suddenly exclaimed, “You have to be nice to everyone you meet! Because you don’t know, they could be angels, so you should entertain them!” Since we had just been discussing the history and traditions of Lent, his non sequitur kind of confused everyone. Then I cried, “Hey, that’s the name of my new blog!” Which threw us all off again. But we eventually returned to discussing purple vestments and cross veiling.
So, welcome. I hope you find at least some of these posts enlightening and/or entertaining, angels.
It’s been a challenge to be nice to everyone I meet, since moving to Long Beach, CA, a few months ago. The hardest angels to entertain have been the homeless, who confront me in ways they never did in the Bay Area. Probably because I now wear my clericals most everywhere; possibly because my priestly interactions with the homeless up north involved specific ministries – Eucharist at a shelter in San Francisco, Eucharist in a park in Hayward – and a service was already being provided; or maybe because our Long Beach church is a geographic and social epicenter for these folks; for whatever reason, I’m feeling targeted.
I get home from work late one Thursday night, and before I can even open my car door, a woman runs up and slurs, “can you spare some money so I can get a bus back home?” Stepping out of the car, I say a terse, “no,” and go to open my garage door (incidentally, automatic garage door openers seem not to have reached Long Beach just yet). I say no because we don’t give out money, us priests, not to strangers. Rather, we channel our time and funds into things like the weekly Saturday Shower Program or the bi-monthly Manna Meals at St. Luke’s. (Both of which I have every intention of visiting in the coming month.) Plus, if word gets out we’re a soft touch, the line’ll be out the church door by morning. I’m in my clericals, so the woman mutters, “you a pastor?” I pause before lifting up the garage door, sigh, and reply, “yes.” She tilts her head, bird-like, looks at me, and sing-songs, “I don’t think you’re a pastor,” wagging her finger like a metronome in time with her little tune. “Yes I am,” I say sharply, annoyed at my irritation even though I knew this was exactly what she’d say. “No,” she drawls, “you’re no pastor, a pastor helps, you’re no pastor,” finger still wagging, tune like a schoolgirl jumprope chant. “Yes I am!” I shout, suddenly riled up. “I’m no pastor like you’re no drug addict!” I want to add, but I hold back. Off she dances away, down the sidewalk, finger wagging above her head as she goes. I park the car, slam the garage door, get into my apartment, and fume for three hours.
The very next afternoon, I go to church in my clericals to prepare for Stations of the Cross at 6pm. A woman calls out and runs up to me before I get into the building, saying, “I’ve been refused at three different churches already today and I hope you can help. I saw you have a shower program here, and I need to take a shower.” Still smarting from the night before, I steel myself. “Yes, you’re welcome to come back in the morning, showers begin at 8am.” “But I need a shower now. Why can’t you just let me shower?” There are any number of good answers for this – liability, I don’t know where the showers are, I have a service to prep, let her in and soon everyone will want a shower on demand – but it’s soon clear none are acceptable to her. And so begins a back-and-forth that culminates in, “I can’t believe you are a priest and you refuse to help me.” I lose it. “Don’t tell me how to do my job!” I shout. She takes a step back and says, “I’m not.” “Yes, you are!” I cry. She begins to plead again, I tell her to come back the next day, and she asks if there’s another priest to speak to. “He’s gone for the day,” I spit out. She says slowly, “I bet he would let me take a shower.” I just close my eyes, turn and walk away, thinking, “You don’t know Gary.”
These encounters rile me up because I know I’m being manipulated; yet I let myself get provoked almost every time. Later, I’m sometimes ashamed at my anger – how could I yell at someone who can’t even find a place to shower? I have all the power in that exchange and I get to deny access, yet it’s my voice that’s raised. And the whole “exposed as a phony priest” thing infuriates because a part of me feels they’re right. How can I deny someone assistance, over and over, and call myself a priest? Bing Crosby never did that in “Going My Way.” Yet I know boundaries are essential in this business, and to say “yes” to all comers would result in chaos.
And maybe that’s the hardest part. Seeing someone with obvious needs, I have to both check my instinct to help and suspend my disbelief in their story … and treat them with a calculated neutrality that robs both of us of our humanity. To say to a homeless person, “I don’t believe what you’re saying,” or “I want to help you,” invites engagement. And I usually like engagement! But what’s called for is disengagement: “We have these programs to help you, and that’s all we can do because there are too many of you to individually assist. It doesn’t matter what your story is: if I help you, fifty more will hear about my assistance and come knocking. So, if you are running up to ask me for something other than prayer or a talk, I have to disappoint you.” The necessary boundary is set; the distance assured. Only a very few have wanted just a prayer or counsel. Most have a concrete need, and I can’t really blame them for sometimes being manipulative. That’s probably what they must do to survive, to get their fix or food or drink or shelter. But it upsets me to have to be this way, and I sometimes lash out at them.
By Saturday morning, the next day, I was looking up at God, shaking my head, and muttering, “what are you doing?” A man had just smiled at me as we passed on the sidewalk, wished me a good day; then, from a few feet behind me, he called out, “say, can I ask you a question?” This time I was in shorts and t-shirt, but I still froze up as I turned around. This, too, ended badly when I didn’t give him money for a hot dog (that somehow involved the VA Center on 7th Street and his family locked up somewhere), so he yelled swear words at me as I continued on my way. I went to the church that afternoon and had to step over a sleeping man in the doorway. After he refused to leave, I barked out, “then I’m calling the police so they can arrest you,” as I pulled out my iPhone. “What?” he said, gazing up at me in surprise. “I don’t have time to argue with you, so either go or get arrested.” He left, brushing aside my belated concern that he take care of himself. As I left the office that evening, I swung open the door on yet another sleeping man, accidentally whacking him in the side. But it was 10pm, this was my fifth confrontation in less than two days, and I had no fight left in me. “Good night,” I said, and left him there.
So, it’s tough. Not just for me, but also for anyone who’s trying to care for these folks, to practice compassion. The following Saturday night, at a church potluck, a parishioner confessed to feeling helpless and frustrated after her day at the shower program. “You know,” I said bitterly, “Jesus can be a real pain in the ass sometimes.” I think we were both shocked at what I’d said, because we started laughing. “But it’s true!” I added. “Because this is what we’re really supposed to do as Christians, he says it right there in the gospels, Jesus calls us to do this work. But it’s no cakewalk, and he never promised it would make us happy. I guess he only promised accompaniment.”
“Compassion,” from the Latin, “to suffer with.” I will try – and fail, and try again – to be more kind in future interactions, to elicit real conversation while promising nothing. Letting it bother me, even as I try not to take it out on the person with whom I’m talking. Suffer with them, because that’s what I signed up for as a Christian. Time will tell if I can manage it.
“Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.” – Hebrews 13:3