Each week I hold a community dinner. Now, many weeks it doesn’t happen which my roommate points out. But what he misses is that it’s not important how it ends (we encourage risk and celebrate in failure) or if people decide to come, rather it’s important to try. And I do try. However, I’ve been bothered more and more by the words of a particular Jewish man who lived during the Greco-Roman empire. And those words encourage people to throw a party (dinner party or banquet) for people who cannot pay you back. Now I’ve had trouble understanding this man as I’ve learned to take some of his literal words figuratively and some of his figurative language literally. Currently, I think this was one of the ones you actually could take quite literally (and learn figurative things in the process). Throwing a party for people reminds me of our culture, where it’s (not) really love to give to someone whose will first feel obligated to return it and will then repay it. Giving with the expectation of return. But can you give when there will be no direct or tangible or visible return because the receiver is incapacitated?
Well, I was challenged. After all, I hold a weekly community dinner. Though it doesn’t happen every week due to cancelations or scheduling, I sure do cook and host a lot of friends who ask to bring food or wine, who try to take me out to dinner, who actually try to give me money for the meal, and who invite me over to return the favor. Why wasn’t I hosting and cooking for people on the street? Now, if I had a place where I had full reign I could easily do that. But I don’t live alone and have to be respectful of everyone’s comfort. So in place of doing my first choice, I decided my spark for the week would be to take a homeless person out to dinner.
What is different than what I normally do is that I would not just buy them food and give it to them (where is the love in that? You can do all kinds of good, humanitarian, beneficial things without love). No, I would take them out to dinner, that means we would share bread and, in the process, lives. We would actually relate. Now in my experience and work, homeless people are most starved of relationship, more than food or clothing or shelter. And it’s this I wanted to give over a meal. I would invite a homeless person in a restaurant (in times past, friends I’ve met on the street don’t want to come into a restaurant due to embarrassment) and we would sit and share our stories. So that’s what I did.
I knew exactly where I was going and who I would take to dinner—this particular man who has an engaging theatrical voice when asking people to buy the DC newspaper that helps the homeless. On my way there, I saw another homeless man begging, and I knew I had to stop. This man’s name is Mike Venables. Mike begs outside the subway stop at my building. I asked him if he wanted to get some food. He said sure. The closest place was Quiznos which he chose. I would later find out he went there a lot. So we went in and we ordered food in line. Mike is a boisterous character and doesn’t worry about politeness when ordering his food, sometimes feeling like the workers cheat him out of enough lettuce, tomatoes, or meat. So Mike always asks for more. I don’t think the workers are supposed to do that, but they did it today as Mike said “Put some more pickles on that. Come on!” It makes me laugh even now.
After we got to the end of the line and our toasted sandwiches were handed to us, I paid and asked Mike if I could join him and have dinner with him. He said sure. He was surprised, but he welcomed it. And we sat down and began to eat and talk. We sat the “man” way, side-by-side on a long bar-table with stools facing the window.
We talked and listened. Well, mostly he talked, and I listened. And most of the conversation was that way. I was trying to engage in a bit of performance art if you’ll allow me to reappropriate the term. You see, Mike and I come from two different backgrounds, socioeconomic levels, regions, and education levels. And in relating to him I was hoping that for an hour we could wash that away as if those differences didn’t exist. But I was very aware while talking that he was a homeless man with very little money and no family and I was a rich man who bought him a meal.
Then something strange happened. Mike had finished telling me about his plight on the streets, and I asked about his family. He spoke about his mother in the hospital. But the strange thing is his response to my question about siblings. He said he had one brother in the DC area. And his brother is a pastor.
“If he’s a pastor I don’t want no part of any of that God stuff.”
“Why? What do you mean?”
“I see what kind of pastor he is. I seen him when he was in seminary studying to get his degree, all the stuff he was doing with women.”
“Oh, you mean he was doing questionable things?”
“Puuuleeease. That guy ain’t no man of God. If you a man of God, ain’t you supposed to lay hands on men and women?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Then why does he only lay hands on women?” We both laughed.
“I mean, I went to one of his “bible studies,” I was the ONLY man in there!” We both laughed more.
“He has a ministry to the women, and I’ve seen what he does with them. Always trying to show them the power of God and God’s thunder.” Laughing, “I don’t want no part in that.”
It was strange, but that was the first time we had laughed while talking, and when we laughed it was as if the flood gates were opened, the draw bridge lifted, and the temperature relaxed. We laughed and laughed.
“I mean all he wants to show women is the power of God.” We laughed more. “God’s thunder.”
We laughed. And it was in the moment of laughing that I felt us become two men. We actually seemed to float from the restaurant, the two stools, the food. We left the labels given to us by the world and each other. We left it all. And we were just two people sharing a joke.
And then it happened once more in a deeper way. After telling me the story of his brother who doesn’t want to have anything to do with him, he mentioned an ex-wife.
“Yeah, you see I would drive trucks and so I would be on the road a lot going up the east coast. And she was back there in Florida. I guess she got bored or tired or something. But she found another man and cheated on me while I was away trying to help provide.”
“Are you still upset? When did this happen?”
“This happened last year. But it’s cool. People can do what they want. She’s a grown woman. The strange thing is that she cheated on me with a friend of mine. Out of ALL the guys she could have chosen, she chose my best friend. Now does that make any sense?”
“So then you’ve been very angry.”
“Naw, I’m not angry.”
“What? Not even a little bit.”
“Naw, she’s a grown woman. She can do what she wants to do. Why she had to choose my best friend, I don’t know. But she can make her own decisions. We just got a divorce. I wasn’t mad one bit, not one bit, not even once. Why am I gonna be mad at her? What do I have to be mad at her about?”
Now it was in this moment that the conversation took a turn because I had a recent break-up at the time, and not only did I not understand what had happened due to seemingly contradictory messages or inadequate (perhaps only for my brain and mind) explanations, but I had a lot of people accusing me of not doing the right thing or doing the wrong thing. And at the time I had visceral moments of anger which I tempered or eliminated immediately by quickly counting the blessings from the relationship and putting myself in the other person’s shoes. But it would come back again later and I would counteract it again.
What was amazing to me was that this man was claiming he felt no anger and was never upset after someone willingly broke a vow and decided not to hold on to the commitment they had. I wanted to know his secret. The reason the topic changed the conversation is that I was mostly listening or asking questions, and he was happy to talk. But now I wanted to know . . . I wanted to know what he thought or if. . . if he had any advice or . . . help . . . .
“You know I had a recent break up where I was left. . .”
And I told a very short version of some story to say I’ve been there. And he listened. And he shared why he wasn’t mad and I listened, and it was in this moment, we stopped being rich man who buys a meal and poor man who eats it. We were two guys who had similar experiences or feelings of being left. . . .where one was showing how a new way is possible, a way without anger. We were just two brothers sharing life together. And that’s when I learned it is possible to ignore class and levels in a moment. One of my purposes in life is to extend those moments as long as I can with as many people I can starting with the outcast, the marginalized, the minimized, and the oppressed. Thanks, Mike.