“Pastor, can I talk to you just a minute?”
The fellow asking has a laugh-lined face and a voice gravelly from cigarette smoking. I stop mid-stride, and give him my full attention.
He tells me that he’s homeless, and that he sometimes sleeps on our handicap access ramp, because it’s a gentle slope, and wood rather than cold stone, and has a roof to keep off the rain. He wants to make sure I’m okay with this, and that I’d know who he is, should someone call or the police ask me about the man on our back porch. He assures me that he comes late at night and leaves early in the morning, and will not be in anyone’s way.
“But,” I sputter, because I’m a Vermonter and it’s the first thing into my head, “the snow, the cold?”
“My bag is good down to zero,” he says, “and just the shelter from the roof and the side of the building is usually enough.”
I furrow my brow at the ‘usually.’
Now I don’t know that it’s my place to give out sleeping spots on my church’s stoop, and I’m simultaneously torn between sorrow that I really can’t just give him a key to the front door and shame/horror that one even needs to ask if the church, the building that houses the people who represent a wandering, oft-homeless rabbi and his work in the world, is a safe place to sleep. So I say the only thing I can think of, which is to call him by name, and tell him that I’ll recognize him should I see him there or should somebody give his description, and that I am okay with him seeking shelter on our ramp.
He goes downstairs to the food pantry, and I go inside to my office to wonder what in the world it means to be in ministry in a place where three or four people call or stop in a day looking for money, where a night on the street in certain times in January can in fact be fatal, and where the institutional body we call church can sometimes be so anxious about the survival of its ministry that we sometimes forget to do the ministry of survival. I’m not saying that we have the wrong response, but I wish we could have more.
Go ahead. Ask me if I embodied the presence of Christ today. I shudder at the answer, because he was present in that conversation, but I think he had a gravelly voice and some laugh lines.