I was walking around downtown Evanston once when I was handed a tract, very quickly, by a man on the corner. He wasn't necessarily obtrusive or obnoxious - all I remember him saying was, Here, this is for you, Jesus loves you - and I mumbled something like, Thanks, and then the light changed and I continued walking across the street. I think I felt a little bit of embarrassment, as thought it was important for me to know, and to be able to tell anyone who might ask, that I am different from this person - although we may say we believe many of the same things, I think rightly about the effectiveness of handing out small booklets to strangers in an age of digital consumer media and in a context of jaded, multicultural, postmodern urbanites.
About six minutes later I sat down in a public area with a fountain to eat some frozen custard. There were several concrete bench areas scattered around this central space, and the one I picked - a sort of curved alcove - was occupied by a bearded man who was clearly homeless. As I walked over, I thought, Well, everybody else is avoiding this guy, so maybe I'll sit here and at least give him the dignity of being treated just like any other person, since people in public urban areas often mingle in very close quarters, but not with homeless folks, since, God forbid, they might smell, or ask you for money, or rob you blind and steal your children.
I ended up having a conversation with him and with three other homeless men, and I am glad I chose to sit down. We laughed together, and I listened to them talk about their hardships, and they asked what I did, so I told them about being a student and about playing music, and I gave them some money (and one of them, Jeff, gave me a very strong and unexpected hug), and I told them that I don't know what this is worth but you are people too, no matter how many times you try to look at others and they refuse, no matter how often you're hassled by the police, you are people, and don't you forget that, don't let go of things like love and kindness, even if it seems like everybody else just wants to believe that you're nothing. And I got handshakes and fist pounds and gratitude.
It is tempting at this point to say something cliche about how it’s hard for many of us to seriously open ourselves to people whose ways of life are very different in some way from our own, and to have in mind those homeless guys, and to make that the point of this essay. But when I walked away from them, the person who kept crossing my mind was religious tract guy. It is uncomfortable for me, you see, to even for a moment entertain the idea that perhaps that gentleman on the corner represents an implicit critique of my faith. Perhaps my knowledge is, after all, just a really clever wall that manages to successfully keep out responsibilities in which I ought to be engaged. Maybe I have a thoroughly worked out theological-cultural-biblical explanation for why handing out tracts on a street corner is never something I personally do as part of my faith and practice. But maybe I just never do it because, frankly, I realize that people like that are often scorned, and I don’t like being scorned. I like being liked, being able to joke around with people. Nobody wants to joke around with Religious Tract Guy. Granted, that’s often his fault, but this time it wasn’t. This time I just kept walking because I didn’t want to be bothered.
Within a short span of time I encountered representatives of two groups that make many people uncomfortable, though admittedly for different reasons: homeless men and the give-you-a-religious-tract-on-the-street-corner guy. The rub here - and why I bothered to write this at all, which most assuredly was not to commend myself for the twenty or so minutes I spent talking with some homeless men - is that when you get right down to it those of us who follow Jesus never have the right to pigeonhole anybody, ever. We simply cannot know and cannot predict the myriad and surprising and paradigm-shattering ways in which God chooses to work, every day, again and again and again. Street corner tracts and homeless men; I don't think, in this instance, that they're really all that far apart. Granted, the tract guy (assuming he wasn't also homeless) had the luxury of leaving the street whenever he chose; but what if he didn't? What if he really was so compelled by what he believes to be true that it was psychologically and spiritually impossible for him to not be on that street corner handing out those tracts? Does that sound insane to you? But what if what he's telling people is true? Because - and this is very basic, but sometimes we forget - singular and life-altering devotion to a cause is only insane if the cause itself is a delusion.
I don't really believe that "tract guy" represents a critique of my faith; at least, not in the sense of me needing to get out and do just what he was doing. But in another way perhaps he does. I was quick, after all, to allow my patterns to be disrupted by some homeless guys, to allow them the freedom and dignity to be people and to accord them the kind of time and respect and understanding that I pray others will always show to me. But did I think about doing that with tract guy? Did I even think about stopping for a moment and affirming that he and I both follow Jesus, or engaging him in some kind of conversation? Nope. I was uncomfortable, and I kept walking.
Over and over we get set in our ways, and redemption has a habit - if we are open to it - of continually breaking us out of them.