CFN – Last night was perfectly awful. My stomach ached; my head ached; I made multiple trips to the bathroom and I don’t think I was ever actually asleep. I got up this morning promising myself that as soon as church was over, I was coming straight home and diving back under the covers. God had other plans.
When the church service finished, I headed as quickly as I could out to the street, eager to get to the parking lot. I passed two panhandlers, one woman, Jackie, a regular at the church (she comes in for the coffee and cookies between services) sitting just to the left of the front door; and a bearded man standing just to the right of the church door. He’s been standing there with an empty Tim Horton’s cup in his outstretched hand for as many Sundays as I can remember. One of the things that first drew me to this church was that I noticed that all the churchgoers stopped to chat, smile or wave at these two panhandlers every week. Only occasionally did they provide some loose change, but without fail, they always acknowledged Jackie and the bearded man’s humanity. Week after week, they paused to speak to these two individuals as fellow human beings. That impressed me!
I smiled at Jackie and the bearded man and headed to the intersection to wait for the crossing light. While standing there, I looked up to see an odd man coming towards me. His face was twitching and he held an unlit cigarette. As he approached me, I could see that there was something wrong with him but I couldn’t figure out what. Was he mentally handicapped? Mentally ill? Brain damaged? He asked me if I had any money that he could have because he was hungry. I ran my fingers along the insides of both pockets of my jacket and found no change. I knew that my wallet contained only two twenty dollar bills and I was not going to give him $20. Having just come out of church, and with visions of the Good Samaritan in my head, I didn’t feel I could walk away from a man who said he was hungry. I saw a Subway Sandwich shop out of the corner of my eye, and offered to buy him lunch. He agreed immediately – a good sign. I have in the past refused to give money to a street person, but offered to buy him or her food instead. Often they invented stories about not being hungry at that moment, but promised, that if I would just give them a few dollars, they would use it to buy food later in the day. At that point I always walked away, unwilling to support a drug habit.
As we walked toward the Subway restaurant, the man told me his name was Roland. “I’m Ally”, I told him. “Hi Ally!” he exclaimed rather needlessly. Inside, he asked me if he could have a large sub instead of a small one. I told him yes. He had very specific preferences. Lots of mayonnaise, lots of onions, green peppers, no cheese. I asked him if he wanted a drink, and he chose to have a large milk. The cashier studied us, trying to figure the two of us out. Was I his social worker? His sister?
“Ally,” he said, “Can I have some money for a snack for later?” “I can’t give you money, Roland,” I answered firmly, eager to pay the bill so that Roland and I could go our separate ways. My head throbbed. I was nauseous and exhausted from my sleepless night. I heard Roland ask the cashier if there was a chair for him to sit on while he ate. “We don’t have tables,” she told him. “We’re just a take out.” “Where do you want to go then Ally?” he asked me. “Oh great!” I thought to myself. I’d done this before, many times, in many cities, in many countries even! But no one had ever expected me to sit with them while they ate the food I’d purchased for them. “Umm, well we could go back to my church,” I stammered. “I can you find a place to sit there.”
“Okay, Ally,” he said congenially. “That would be good because I’m really cold.” That’s another reason why I love my church. I knew that I could walk in there, scout out a chair and a table and no one would question the appropriateness of bringing in a homeless man in filthy clothes to eat his lunch. “Where else if not the church?” I imagined my pastor saying. As we walked the short distance to my church, he told me he had no one. “My mother died when she was 36, he told me. My father’s dead. My sister’s dead and my brother’s dead. I’m all alone.” My heart softened and I forgot momentarily about my aching head. He was so genuine and child-like.
“I have tendonitis and schizophrenia,” he informed me, as though the two went together. “Are you taking your meds?” I asked him. “Yeah, the shelter gives them to me every morning.” “You know you have to take them. Always. You can’t miss a day,” I said as though I was some kind of expert. The reality is that just yesterday, there was a story in the paper* about a young man with schizophrenia who stopped taking his medication, and then jumped off a bridge. He was in his second year of university, and he had a happy, confident smile in the photo they ran with the story. The article ended with his parents pleading with the public to remember that the next time we saw someone wandering the streets, talking to themselves, looking dishevelled — that person could have been their son — that person was someone’s son or daughter. With those words in my head, I had a sense of purpose now in my conversation with Roland. Just inside the church door, was the table where the coffee had been set up earlier. I grabbed us each a chair and sat down with Roland while he ate.
“Do you think I have problems, Ally?” Roland asked me. It sounded as though he was looking for confirmation that his life was difficult. “Roland, you don’t have a home and you don’t have a family. Yes I think you’ve got problems.”
Roland looked around at his surroundings. “I’m a Christian, you know. God never leaves you. I pray to Jesus. I believe in miracles, you know. There are miracles happening all the time, all around us,” he said. “I will pray for a miracle for you,” I told him. “Okay,” he replied, “that would be good, because I am all alone. My mother died when she was 36.” “How old were you when she died, Roland?” “Twelve and a half,” he replied.
His nose was running from the cold, but he didn’t seem to notice. It dripped straight down until it made contact with the sandwich, at which point a string was formed that stretched and contracted each time he brought the sandwich to his mouth to take a bite.
The custodian came along and politely informed us that he needed to put away the table we were sitting at. “You can move over there,” he said smiling and pointed to the room that was being set up for a luncheon. “Hey!!” Roland cried out happily. “You are my friend!” The custodian looked puzzled. “You gave me $10 last summer! Ally, this guy is my friend!” He reached out a hand that was covered in lettuce, mayonnaise and heaven knows what else. The custodian graciously shook his hand. “It’s good to see you!” Roland said, almost shouting in his delight.
We relocated to one of the other tables. “I was in a lot of foster homes, Ally”, Roland said, “When my mother died, my father made me the scapegoat for everything. ‘Roland’, he’d say ‘it’s all your fault’…even when it was my brother or my sister that did it.” I nodded sympathetically, not sure what I should say. “Is that why you went to foster homes?” I asked.
“Yes and because of those voices in my head,” he replied using his fingers to point to the spot on his forehead where the voices came from. He returned that hand to his sandwich and encountered the trail of mucous dripping from his nose. He used the back of his hand to wipe it, then, after studying that spot on the back of his hand for a few seconds, he proceeded to lick it thoroughly, the way an animal grooms itself by licking its paws. I tried hard not to react. He stopped after a bit and declared “I don’t lie, Ally. I always tell the truth. I believe in God, so I don’t lie.”
“Well that’s great”, I told him. When he finished the first half of the sandwich, he said that he’d need to wrap the other half back up for later. “I have problems with my appetite,” he said. I offered to wrap it for him. His beard was now spotted with lettuce shreds and mayonnaise.
“Hey Ally, you don’t have an extra scarf do you? It’s really cold outside!” “Darn, Roland, I don’t,” I said regretfully. By now I was feeling tenderly towards him. I wasn’t even wearing a scarf myself, although if I had been, I’d have gladly given it to him. I remembered the bag of women’s clothing I’d brought to church to give to a friend who was going through some hard times. I’d cleaned out my closet recently and packed this bag for her, but she hadn’t been in church for me to give it to her. “All I have is this bag of women’s clothing,” I said to Roland, lifting it from the floor to show him. Suddenly I remembered that one of the sweaters, a fuzzy red one, had a scarf attached to it with little buttons! “Wait, I just remembered that this sweater has a detachable scarf!” I said excitedly yanking it out of the bag. “And it’s red like my coat,” Roland announced happily in the same voice he’d used when greeting the custodian.
“It’s perfect! And no one ever has to know that it was part of a lady’s sweater!” I said giddily. Roland started to laugh. Then I started to laugh too. For a minute we were co-conspirators in a mad caper. Roland wrapped the scarf around his neck as our laughter slowed.
“So do we pray now?” he asked. “Sure Roland, we can pray now,” I said. He reached for my hand. I looked down at his hand just as I was clasping it, and saw long dirty finger nails. Briefly the image of him licking his own mucous off the back of his hand flashed before my eyes, but I chased it away, knowing that Jesus would have held this man’s hand. I took his hand in both of mine and prepared to pray, but Roland beat me to it. “Lord,” he said “I’m all alone. I have schizophrenia. It’s cold outside. I got a scarf. I got to eat. You won’t ever leave me. Thank you.” He was silent. “Can I say something too?” I asked. Roland nodded. I prayed aloud for him- the first time I’ve ever held the hand of a homeless person and prayed aloud. I prayed that Godly people would be put in Roland’s path; that he would always take his medication; that he would get a bed at the shelter on cold nights; and that he would always know that God was holding him close. When I said “Amen,” Roland began to sing in a big voice. “Thank you Lord,” went the song. “Thank you Jesus.” Roland had a booming baritone voice, and the song was lovely. I wasn’t sure if he was making it up or if it was an actual song he’d learned in a church somewhere.
“Ally I’d really like a coffee,” he said when the song ended. We walked out of the church and turned left towards the Tim Hortons. He stopped to light the cigarette. I stood in front of him to block the wind from blowing out the lighter’s flame, as I’d done before with my mother. “I really hate to see you spend the money you get panhandling on cigarettes,” I told him. “I hate it too. I want to quit but it’s been 38 years. I started smoking when my mother died.” I did the math. That would make him 50 years old, exactly the same age as me. He looked younger than that, though it was hard to tell with the squinting and wincing that overtook his face every minute or so.
“Ally, are you doing any spring cleaning? Cause if you are, I could help you… you could tell me what to do and I could work for you.” I was relieved of the need to answer him as we passed by Jackie, the homeless woman who stakes out the west side of the church door each weekly. “Jackie, I am going to buy this man a coffee. Could I bring you back one?” I asked. “That would be great” Jackie said gratefully, “A double double please.” As we reached Tim’s I noticed that my head was throbbing again. It had been well over an hour since church had ended and I wasn’t sure what else I could say to Roland. Seeing that he’d smoked only half his cigarette, I thought that perhaps this could bring about a logical conclusion to our time together.
“Roland, you can’t bring that cigarette inside, so why don’t you wait for me out here? I’ll go in and get the coffee and bring it out to you.” “You know what, Ally, you go in and get the coffee. When I’m done smoking, I’ll come in and get us a table.”
It was looking like I would be spending some more time with Roland. Once again he was very precise in his tastes. “I’d like a medium coffee. Not large. Medium. With three creams, two sugars and one sweetener.” I was puzzled by the sugar-sweetener combination, so he repeated his request for me. “Medium coffee, three creams, two sugars and one sweetener.” I got his coffee and one for Jackie and then turned to see him settling in at a table. I sat across from him and pushed his coffee forward. “The police aren’t nice to me Ally. And people aren’t nice to me. They look at me like this…” He made a haughty face. “They think I am mentally retarded. I have schizophrenia. I am not mentally retarded. I have been in the hospital 45 times.” “Roland that’s terrible,” I said. “Do they help you when you are in the hospital?” “Yes,” he answered. “That’s how I got a psychiatrist.” I worriedly watched him drink the coffee. Every mouthful seemed to wrack his body with pain. He clutched his stomach as his face grew more contorted than usual.
“Is that coffee hard on your stomach, Roland?” I asked him. “No, it’s just my tendonitis acting up.” I was mystified by that response. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two men at a nearby table looking at us, and the man at the table across from us, hanging on our every word.
“You know Roland you should come to my church sometime. There’s really good music and the people there really love God.” “I go to church,” was his response. “Sometimes I go to one church. Sometimes another church. I go to whatever church I want, because I do whatever what I want. No one makes me do anything. Hey Ally, do you ever get the feeling like you’re being stalked?” “Umm no Roland, I don’t. That sounds like the kind of feeling you might get if you stopped taking your meds.” “Yeah, I’m paranoid – a paranoid schizophrenic. I feel like people are following me because I have a lot of money in my wallet.” “So Roland, you know you have to always take your medication. You can’t ever miss it, not even once.” “Yeah, I know. Or I get those voices,” he said, pointing to that same place on his head as before. I was starting to feel out of my depth. I am not a psychiatric nurse. I am not a social worker. I had nothing to offer other than a meal and a prayer…and a bit of normal human interaction.
“Roland. I should probably get going. I have to get this coffee to Jackie before it gets cold.” “Maybe she’d want the other half of this sandwich,” he said pulling it out of his pocket. “That’s really kind of you Roland.” He stood and walked toward the door. “Okay Ally, thank you. Goodbye.” Abruptly, he turned and walked down the sidewalk in the direction opposite of the one I would take to find Jackie. No fanfare. No backward glance. Nothing. I thought maybe he’d walk back with me and sit with Jackie awhile, but he seemed overtaken by a streak of independence and was quickly swallowed up within the maze of Bloor Street sidewalks.
I watched him disappear and then realized the men in the Tim Hortons were watching me watching him. I am pretty certain that each of us: Roland, me, the cashier at Subway, the custodian, Jackie, and the three men at Tim Hortons came away with something this morning. Full bellies? Full hearts? The sermon at church had been about having faith that allows for extravagant love, like the woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus’s head. I hadn’t been extravagant. I’d spent less than $15. But I think it was genuine love that had been pouring out of me. It felt like the kind of love Jesus would have had for the Rolands of the world. The sick, the poor, the abandoned, the homeless. I think Roland and I were meant to meet each other this morning. I think God has had enough of me writing about social justice and wanted to remind me to walk the walk. Next Sunday I will bring mittens and a hat, and hope that Roland crosses my path again.
*Here’s a link to the heart-wrenching video of the young schizophrenic man who committed suicide. His story was covered in the Toronto Star, and the video honouring him was prepared by his parents.
Allyson Eamer, Ph.D. is a Cornwall native, a sociolinguist and university professor in Toronto. She insists that it is her Christian faith and personal experience with depression, rather than any letters beside her name, that qualify her to speak and write on this subject.
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