By Jeff Goins, Editor
Paul and I drove to downtown Nashville, found an overpriced parking garage, prayed, and took our backpack full of apples and assorted energy bars to the riverside. Immediately, we saw a man sitting on the bench. We approached him and offered him an apple. He declined, saying that he didn’t have enough teeth to chew it. I munched on the apple casually as Paul rifled through his bag to give the man something. He settled on a semi-soft breakfast bar. I asked his name.
“Some call me Lucifer,” he told us. I tried not to cringe. I kept prodding with questions, to which he only answered that he was called Satan and the Antichrist. He kept referring to other voices and occasionally consulted them. He immediately identified us as Christians, though we never mentioned the fact. He said he could just tell certain things intuitively and quoted the Bible ad nauseum. I tried not to get scared. If this was a demon we were facing, I had no reason to fear. And if this was simply a crazy man, I had no reason to fear.
The more we touched on spiritual matters, the more defensive he got. In fact, we didn’t bring up the subject in the first place; he did, as if he expected us to lay the Gospel on him at the outset. When we dwelt on spirituality, he was full of all kinds of contradictory rants and always seemed like he was trying to get a reaction out of us. I asked if he liked scaring people. He said he was just being himself and couldn’t help if people were scared. He said sometimes he scares himself. I told him that I wasn’t scared of him.
I then asked him where his family was. His demeanor changed. “Why do you want to know about them?” He asked suspiciously. I thought maybe we had touched a sensitive issue here but one that needed to be explored.
“They must miss you,” I said, bluffing as if I knew he had a family. He explained that they were forty miles south of the city “in the deep South.” He didn’t dwell too much on a single topic and was not impressed by our presence at all. Nonetheless, we stuck it out with him, bearing the questionable glances we got from other “respectable” passersby and found out his real name was Jesse. I insisted on his telling the truth, and we eventually got some useful information from him.
This man was intoxicated, hungry, and who knows what else. He could barely keep his eyes open. However, in such a state, he could recite more of the Bible verbatim than I could. He rambled on about the End Times, about special insight that he had from God, and said that he was called to speak the truth. The truth, apparently, is that God and Satan are in cahoots for some money. He would simply change subjects when we caught him in a contradiction.
It was hard to talk to this man. He obviously did not care much that we were there. He did not seem to need much and was content falling asleep on that bench right in front of us. It was a healthy hit to my pride, my American zealotry that says that I have all the answers for the poor, the lost, and the needy.
We found it most advantageous not to try to solve this man’s problems but to talk to him about real matters things like where he slept at night, if he had any friends, and how long he’d been on the street. He could quote us a hundred abstract concepts from the Bible, but they bore no reality for him. I suspected that he had heard more sermons from “people trying to help” than he cared to hear.
The challenges of homeless ministry became a reality to me through Jesse. As I was wondering if it was worth my time, if this person and others like him were really worth my love, another bearded man was about to pass us on the sidewalk.
His walk had a teeter, which could have been due to some kind of equilibrium malfunction or just plain intoxication. Nonetheless, there was an awkwardness to his character. In contrast to Jesse’s coldness, this new face, Steve, was very thankful for the apple we gave him and eager to join in the conversation.
We talked about everything from the Chicago Cubs to Italian beef sandwiches to long underwear. As we dove into these finer aspects of life, Jesse simply closed his eyes and sunk into another level of consciousness. Our new companion was not so difficult to coax into talking and actually seemed to enjoy the conversation.
Steve had a Bachelor’s degree, a nice house in Indiana, and an unfortunate drug habit that had brought him to Nashville for rehab. According to the way he tells the story, his luggage, money, and any source of identification were stolen as he was trying to check into the over-occupied clinic.
He resorted to the street, which was the only place that accepted him. He recently shattered his middle finger, and they had to remove it entirely. He has only been on the street eight months and is laying low until his sister wins custody for his two sons over his drug-addict wife. When he spoke of his boys, I saw an earnest desire in this man’s eyes to provide for these children and make sure that they had the best life possible. He plans on visiting them for Christmas, if all goes well.
He could tell that we were interested in knowing more about his way of life and told us plenty. “If you do it right,” he said, “you can eat a hot meal every night.” He told us where to go when, and I realized what needs were already being met. Again, it was humbling to be out there and realize that I was not really needed as another humanitarian. Looking at our bag of apples (we had only fed three people so far), I felt a little insignificant at this point.
Nonetheless, Paul was bold enough to ask what Steve needed the most. He eagerly entertained this request and identified some of his immediate needs, along with those of the people he lived with. Namely, they could use more blankets. We asked where they slept, and as he was describing the location and we tried to follow along, he decided to just take us there, if we were willing.
I think we both weren’t, but we nodded in eager agreement, wondering where Jesus was taking uswith Steve as our guide.
Continued in Finding Calcutta, Pt. 2
If you liked this article, check out: First Steps: Strawberry Chocolate and Broken Glass
Jeff graduated from Illinois College, a small liberal arts school, with a degree in Spanish and Religion. He lives in Nashville, TN. He works for Adventures in Missions, edits this silly little magazine, and loves to do new things. He just got married in January.