The first time I saw him he was strolling in front of what used to be the Indian restaurant down the way. I thought he was just another hippie. It didn't really surprise me to see him; the make up of our side of town took on a new character right around the time that Katrina hit New Orleans and a fair amount of its flooded-out residence fled here.
Within the week, I saw him again. It was more clear this time that he was walking the streets aimlessly, carrying nothing at all, wearing exactly what he had been wearing earlier in the week. He was not a "hippie." He was homeless.
Driving by, I found myself completely unprepared to help. No cash. No snacks. Nothing.
And so, we did what we knew to do. Something we had done before.
This year's 1000-calorie packs included nutritious and delicious snack food...
basic hygiene products like toothpaste and deodorant...
and some comfort items like gum and Chapstick...
We packed 10 bags, and loaded 2 of them into the car.
And Wednesday, on the way home from our outing downtown--to see the Nutcracker, to eat at Shilo's, to take a boat ride, to tour a Catholic Church, to come face to face with the least of these--we saw him. He wasn't walking around this time. He was sitting on a bus stop bench in my neighborhood. I turned into the adjacent parking lot so that I could drive up along side the man who had inspired us to prepare, and motioned Fifi to hand me one of the bags.
"Give me the good one--the one with the tuna lunch and cliff bar."
He was on his feet and already coming toward me as I rolled down my window to hand it out to him. I tried not to show my shock at the realization that he was not a black man as I had assumed from afar. Up close, I could see he was hispanic. He was caked and dark with grime and also in desperate need of a nail clipping, haircut and shower. He took the bag, bowed his head as if to say, "thank you," and went back to his bench a few steps away. When he turned around, it was clear, too, that he needed a change of clothing.
And that was it.
I started to drive away when I remembered that I had forgotten to add water to the bags. I had thought to once, but hadn't followed through right away, and the idea flew out of my head.
"Do you need some water?" I called out.
He jumped up, sat back down and somehow signaled in the affirmative without actually saying a word.
"I'll go get some and be right back." Rather than go to a store and drag everyone in, taking so long that maybe he'd be gone by the time I got back, I stopped at a corner store and bought what they had to offer. Vitamin water or Green Tea--this store had no regular bottled water. I chose the water and prayed that it wouldn't disagree with his system.
When I got back into the car, I started running the question over in my head. Where does this man get water? I can't imagine that the local restaurants, even fast food, would allow him to enter their establishments. Is there a hose behind one of the businesses that he can access? Do people give him bottles as they pass by?
He's not asking for money. There's no sign, no set up. This guy is the real deal, and it makes me think about things I haven't thought about before. Real things like food, water, warmth, tooth brushing, body odor, underwear and bathroom breaks.
I hadn't answered any of these questions for myself before I got back to the bus bench to deliver his bottled water. He stood up, came over, and took the bottle from my hand. I was horribly aware by now of how inadequate my offering was in the face of his need, and I invited him to assuage my guilt with a reassurance that he knew of our city's available services and that he had somewhere to sleep.
He didn't actually say yes as much as he nodded his head. I asked him what his name was and he paused to search for it, it seemed. I think he doesn't speak English.
"Martinez," he said. And he didn't seem crazy. Or mean.
I think I needed him to seem crazy. Or mean.
"I'll pray for you, Martinez."
Before he got back to the bench I looked beyond him to see if he was making use of the bag we gave him minutes earlier. I was not prepared for what I saw, and I'm not sure why it struck me as such a blow. Martinez had ripped into that gallon-sized Ziploc bag like an animal, leaving a gaping whole on one side and rendering the bag completely useless to carry its other items.
He did not know how to unzip the bag.
The four of us girls spent the rest of the ride home listening to me think aloud to myself about what I had just seen. Will Martinez be able to figure out how to open the Starkist Lunch-To-Go albacore and crackers? Is he going to know what to do with the deodorant stick or will he mistake it for food? Will he be able to keep hold of the Chapstick tube for the worst of the cold, dry days coming this winter?
*Sigh* Oh Lord Jesus, have mercy on Martinez!
And have mercy on me.
For the rest of the day, I am too disturbed to speak. I apologetically brush off my girls, but they understand. They were there. They are confused too.
I am painfully aware of my ability to help. My extra bedroom. The extra 3/4ths bath that our home boasts. Enough food. Even matresses to spare. I am also painfully aware of why I am not helping.
Instead, I choose my safety over Martinez' shower. I choose my girls' protection over Martinez' shelter. I choose my peace of mind over Martinez' dinner. I choose us over him.
And it busts my heart wide open because I can't repent. I can't do it any other way. I am faced with the harsh reality that I am selfish and I need a savior.
Jesus is my Savior.
And I will ask Him to send along another pilgrim to help Martinez. One who is sensitive, equipped, and...willing.
Because He is able. I know He is able. I know my Lord is able to carry him through.
It is so cold here tonight.
...than one lay down his life for his friends.