I met Saint Paul by an off ramp, drinking cheap beer and smoking his cigarettes with the two fingers he had left. He was homeless, of course; but then again everybody is these days. He lived on a lower drift in the grease-trap world, where all the oil and grime of our french-fries ends, flavoured with the exhaust and curious half-stares from the trying-not-to-look people in cars that passed us. True, we made a curious sight: he was an old hippie in a faded rock band t-shirt and ripped up and distressed jeans, the type kids liked to imitate a few years back. I was in tan slacks and a tweed suit jacket, with that kind of short hair and beard that’s popular just now. I gave him some food and a twenty, then sat down.
It was a small thing, the sitting down. Maybe I did it out of some self-righteous hubris. Homeless people are a very special sort of whore for us upright moral folk. It feels good to give a beggar food. “Whatever you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me” and all that. We want to feel like sheep, clothing Jesus in the wool we didn’t earn, but were born into. So we quietly walk by, hand Saint Paul’s flock some change and a sandwich, offer to pray, and move on. It’s a service industry. I do declare there were times I gave the scathing look of a proud martyr to the car windows that left the freeway in front of us.
There was also perhaps a more honest, if no less selfish, reason for me to be there: I’m a sucker for stories. I could tell from one look at ‘ol Saint Paul that he was a ripe, juicy fruit of life experience. I wanted a taste, to consume his narratives and digest them down into my writing. I wanted to call this hobo Saint Paul. Now, as I’ve said, this was a selfish desire, no better than if I’d have been happy just handing him the food and the twenty and heading off my self-righteous way. But there was something in my cannibalism: it was earnest. The Saint knew what I was about the moment I sat down, and got right into it. We sang songs from the sixties and seventies. Old tunes from John Lennon and Jerry Garcia. We were sharing a meal. The whole situation was just so dang Eucharistic, I was half expecting Paul’s beer to turn red.
God has a funny way of showing up in stories like this. Paul, and his real name was Paul, asked me what I did. I said I was a student in Divinity School, learning all kinds of things about Jesus. He asked me how that was going. I told him that I was becoming very suicidal. Divinity School, you see, is a place for social justice. Being a white straight middle class male in the year of Ferguson was a time when “privilege” became synonymous with “sin.” The only difference is, Christ washed off our sins; privilege is written in skin. I was a gentile, a Roman, perhaps a God-fearer, but not of the right people for holy places won in suffering. Christ stands with the oppressed, the down-trodden; I didn’t quite fit the bill. It seemed, therefore, that the most altruistic thing I could do was skin myself, and leave the space open for a better, more diverse person to occupy.
‘Preach at me’
Paul asked, “What good news do you have for me? Preach at me.” I reached into a well of Bible study and theology classes, and heard every last anecdote, every last sermon, turn and say “Don’t pick me. Not me. I’m not qualified for this kind of situation.” I think Paul could see that I was bleeding somewhere nobody else could see. He told me not to kill myself, and that everything usually turns out right, if you keep praying. He wrapped me up in a hug, and for the first time I felt the mottled, thin body of a man who’d been beaten, starved and thrown out of the city just for being who he was. I felt the body of Saint Paul.
I went home, and logged into my various media sources, once again plunging into an angry world, where black bodies lined the streets, white people looked offended, and every news source spun and spun on the charred ashes until they lit their own fires to write stories about. But Saint Paul had hugged me, and taught me about being a new creation. In Christ, there is a table lined with bad beer and cheap food, where the cloth has cigarette burns in it and the only people who don’t get their fill are those who can’t stand to be around each other. I’ll sit with Saint Paul, and an Ethiopian Eunuch, and the Samaritans.
I saw my homeless brother for the last time a few days later, at the supermarket. He was clutching his bags close, looking so terribly lost in the hurry of the middle class. I felt lost, too. Neither of us fit in with all the opinions and castigations, all the dirty looks and social commentary. We were both desperate for a place to sit down, where people are outside of their own headspaces enough to see each other as something other than obstacles or stereotypes. A place where history and culture and privileges don’t change how much bread each person gets, or who gets to talk. Where our first identity is “child of God,” the second is “sisters and brothers,” and finally “all that other stuff we were born into.” The only requirement is to have the time to take a load off by a busy highway off ramp, and watch the cars go by.
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