BLOGS The Homeless Teacher

“In its highest form, not judging is the ultimate act of forgiveness.” – John Kuypers

He was homeless in the traditional sense, mentally ill, a handful when he was drinking and drugging — and he was ours, one of us, one of the flock at Temple United Methodist Church in the heart of Muskegon Heights where I worship and serve.

His name was Gary.

He was tall, so gaunt he was almost a shadow, and his skin was nearly the same texture and color as the leather jacket and Indiana Jones hat that he wore. Most of the time he lived on the streets or in a hole in the ground, trespassing where he wasn’t allowed, but always returning because it was near his father’s grave in a cemetery, or so we heard.

In the winter, some of us took up a collection — and combined it with the money his family gave our pastor — so we could put him up in a motel where he would be warm and safe. He refused to go to any of the emergency shelters in town because he couldn’t; he wouldn’t abide by the rules, and the truth is, he wore out his welcome most places.

So he came to us.

We found him one Sunday; actually, I should say, my mother found him one Sunday morning on her way into the 10 o’clock service, going through the Dumpster in the church alley. Maybe he was looking for cans and bottles to turn in. Maybe he was after any scrap of food he could find. Whatever, my mother invited him in for coffee and cookies, and he’s been with us ever since.

Until August 2, when police found him, unresponsive and in cardiac arrest on the side of the road. He died later that week surrounded, as so many obituaries say, by his family — blood relatives and friends from church. A few days later, we held a memorial service; a celebration of his life. His friends from the Shell gas station that he frequented came to say goodbye; so did friends of his family, his relatives and the people of the church and Supper House where he ate most nights, all of us knowing that we were part of the puzzle of his life — no finger-pointing, no recrimination, no guilt and absolutely no piety. We had the blessing of meeting Gary where he was; not where we thought he should be.

As our pastor said, Gary wasn’t our charity case. He was ours, one of us. He taught us who we are as a church, as people of faith worshipping in a community that can be hard and mean and misunderstand. I watched a man take the boots off his feet to give to Gary one winter. My mother and a friend brought him lunch every Sunday. Others gave him a bike, clothing, money, rides. They visited him on the street, in his hole, at the motel. When he had a cat, some of us brought him cat food. For years, we put the coffee pot on early so Gary could have a cup as soon as he walked through the door, which was long before the service officially started. He came to Bible study, ladies luncheons and bazaars, special services. He ushered. Once, he was liturgist.

And every Sunday during the prayers of the people, he offered his thanks to the people of the church. He didn’t realize that he let us be the church God called us to be. He connected us, as people, as a church.

It wasn’t always easy being Gary’s friend. When he was agitated or abusing substances, we gave him space. It was safer.

But on good days, and there were plenty of them, he was the first to help unload car trunks and carry in supplies — whether it was for that day’s cookie hour, a meeting or our turn hosting families who are homeless at Family Promise. At Easter, he was one of the first to volunteer to help lift the cross down from the balcony to the sanctuary.

He called me “hon.” Almost every week, he’d say: “How you doin’ hon?” One Sunday, after I’d filled in for our pastor on vacation, Gary told me I’d done a good job. He knew how much work it was because he’d been a vicar once. He’d also been in the CIA, the federal witness protection program and in the most amazing of all: He told us that he’d been shot dead and come back to life.

“I’ve been resurrected, hon. You understand me?” he once told me.

And then he winked, took a slug of coffee and finished his supper.

As a church, we’re getting used to being without Gary. His absence is profound, but we take solace. We have faith. Gary won’t be cold this winter or any winter after. He’ll be safe, never hungry again, and understood. And he is home, finally, at last.

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