Editor’s Note: This year’s return to an in-person Hutchmoot gathering also allowed our favorite chef/writer John Cal to bless us with his thoughtful essays before each evening meal. What follows is his Friday night pre-meal address from Hutchmoot ’22. You can read his opening night essay here.
Needle and Thread by Sleeping at Last
When the world welcomes us in We’re closer to heaven than we’ll ever know They say this place has changed But strip away all of the technology And you will see That we are all hunters Just hunting for something that will make us okay
Here we lay alone In hospital beds, tracing life in our head But all that is left Is that this was our entrance and now it’s our exit As we find our way home
And all the blood and all the sweat That we invested to be loved Follows us into our end And we begin to understand
That we are made of love And all the beauty stemming from it We are made of love And every fracture caused by the lack of it
“You were a million years of work” Said God and His angels, with needle and thread They kissed your head and said “You’re a good kid and you make us proud So just give your best and the rest will come and we’ll see you soon
All the blood and all the sweat That we invested to be loved Follows us into our end And we begin to understand
That we are made of love And all the beauty stemming from it We are made of love And every fracture caused by the lack of it Caused by the lack of love
He said that he and his mother just finished prayer meeting, and somewhere along the way he lost his wallet. He had already asked a handful of people, all of whom had said no.
“Who is so cruel as to leave people stranded after a prayer meeting?” he said.
He just wanted gas to get home. I had $3 in cash in my wallet and offered it to him, but he said that wouldn’t get him far enough.
“I’ll Venmo you the money once I get home,” he said as he handed me his business card. It had his picture on it, a real estate broker, it said.
“Sure,” I said.
“$20, okay?” he asked. “Just want to make sure I get all the way home.”
I stuck in my debit card and punched in the PIN number. He looked away as I did, and then began to pump gas into his Toyota.
I was there to get gas myself when he approached me. The indicator light had been flashing now for over 30 miles, and I was beginning to get nervous. I pulled into the Kroger to fill up, and that’s when Aaron Martin, the man on the business card, approached me.
I have a complicated relationship with beggars.
When I was younger, my mother was in nursing school, and for one of her papers, she studied the effects homelessness has on human development. As an adult, I understand this, but as a five year old, it was strange to see her stop and talk to vagrants. Even after her research was over, while walking through the park, or the mall, or at the beach, she’d see someone she recognized from her study and strike up a conversation. Often, she’d buy them a little food, or slip a five-dollar bill in their pocket when my father wasn’t looking.
During lunch or on the drive home, she’d recount their stories, like Ken, for instance, has a son who’s a dentist, or that Peter became a vagabond after his wife died. “LuAnne lost her job when the hotel closed,” mom prattled, “and there wasn’t anything else she was trained to do.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was making them humans. They weren’t just beggars or transients, but they were people. They had names: Ken, Peter, LuAnne.
When I lived in the mountains near Sisters, Oregon, there weren’t many beggars. Winter saw to that, chasing most of the homeless population away come December. A woman from town created a little camp of sorts outside the city limits, and you could occasionally see her hauling a cardboard box or bags of groceries on her derelict bicycle from place to place. Gladys, I think her name was, but even she would disappear from November to April. Portland was different.
In Portland, while I lived in a fairly safe and very gentrified neighborhood, just a few blocks away were many of the city’s service organizations—soup kitchens, overnight shelters, city churches, methadone clinics. Walking downtown or driving over the Burnside Bridge, you’d see clusters of dozens of men, women, and families waiting for services to open, or just biding their time, spending their days in limbo. Further up on Glisan Street, towards Kings Heights where I lived, you could feel removed from the fervor of downtown.
Less city bustle, more neighborhoods, the homeless population dwindled in my corner of Northwest Portland except for a few regulars that most in the area could distinguish as part of the backdrop of our locale. There was the man who was always checking the parking meters for forgotten change. He wore a scruffy black beard and tattered converse. The woman with the blue backpack was known to steal food from the grocery store down the street—just walk in and grab a loaf of bread or an apple or two and just walk back out. I remember hearing a produce manager once said of her, “What’s a lost banana every now and then?” And the man who was often outside the coffee shop down the street, tapping you on your way in, asking you if you had any spare change, or if you’d be willing to get him a cup of coffee too.
Then there was Wheels.
Wheels wasn’t his real name of course, and I don’t think anyone else in the neighborhood called him that, but it seemed an appropriate moniker because he was often riding on the back of a large grocery store shopping cart like a skateboard, or a scooter, or sometimes even like a soap box derby car. Wheels would travel around the Alphabet District in Northwest Portland and fill his cart with aluminum cans and glass bottles that he’d find on the street or deep in trash cans, before taking them down to the neighborhood recycling center for five cents apiece.
And how much more lavish the love of God to bless us, even when He is never fooled by our deceptions, even when He already knows how we intend to misuse his gifts. John Cal
You could tell he was young, in his late twenties or early thirties maybe, young but weathered, his skin made leathery by the sun and the cold. His fuzzy blonde hair stuck up at odd angles in light wisps of sand-colored candy floss circling a tan patch of shiny scalp. He wore army green cargo pants (yes, of course, he did), a black multi-pocketed freezer coat that suited him, and the most pleasant, often smiling, demeanor. I know how trite that detail sounds in an essay about a homeless man, but it’s true, he was, so often, smiling.
Wheels never asked for money, never asked for anything—food, a cup of coffee. So many of the other neighborhood regulars were aggressive in their panhandling, being able to distinguish between the neighborhood locals and tourists or weekend suburbanites coming to the city to do some shopping. And in the middle of seeing a poor unsuspecting Californian in town just wanting to experience the hipster Portlandia magic get harassed by a beggar, you’d turn only to see Wheels coasting down the street, weaving in between traffic on his shopping cart, going about his businesses picking up cans and bottles.
Before I continue on, I’d like to apologize to you (and to Wheels, really) for insensitively using the terms beggar, homeless, panhandler, vagrant, and vagabond somewhat interchangeably, even when I was trying to profess our shared humanness. It’s easy enough to feel like we’re all part of some sort of community, some family of faith, that we’re all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve when it suits us, when the labels compliment who we are, or rather, who we hope we are, but then someone falls on some hard times, or is dealing with mental trauma. They steal a little food, or harass the tourists, or have their main source of income from collecting bottles and cans.
I want to believe that we’re all equal, that God is fair in his dealings, that both the lamb and the scapegoat have equal chances with the Lord, but then I see Wheels, or Ken, or Peter, or LuAnne, and whether it’s my fault or theirs (who even needs to think of fault in times like these?!), the facts of the story seem much less palpable.
I gave him a box of cans once. Wheels, I mean. I saw him pushing his cart just uphill from my apartment building and told him to wait if he had a minute, and I’d go get him the recycling from under my sink. It was a good-sized box and quite full, as I am a lazy recycler, and Wheels was ever so grateful.
“Here, I want to give you something,” he said happy and flustered, his hands darting in and out of his many pockets. “Oh, here, take one,” he said, as he produced three links of warm unwrapped salami from the depths of a coat pocket.
“No, thanks. Those are yours,” I said, trying to keep a straight face despite the distinct smell of rotting meat.
“Well, these cans are yours,” he said.
“No, those are yours too,” I said.
“Well, thanks man,” Wheels said before loading up his cart and rolling down the hill. “If you change your mind about the salami, just let me know.”
I guess you give what you have, and hope that most days that’s enough.
But of course, Aaron Martin never sent me the money on Venmo. He sped away in his car before I could input the info into my phone to find that there was an error. The phone number didn’t work when I sent a text to it either, nor when I called it.
Anecdotally, we all know stories like these, when giving worked out for the good, and when we were lied to and got shafted out of $20 at the Kroger gas station.
After Jesus is done preaching the Beatitudes, he continues his sermon, talking about murder, adultery, and divorce (I know right? Yes, this was directly after he preached the beatitudes). Then he gets to fairness and giving.
“If someone wants to take your shirt, give him your coat as well.”
“Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
“He causes the sun to rise and fall on the good and the evil, and causes the rain to fall on the sinners and the saints.”
I often find it so fascinating that we needed murder explained to us. Why wasn’t, “Murder: Don’t do it” enough, as found in Exodus 20? But then it wasn’t clear enough, I guess. And if we don’t comprehend the ramifications of murder, what hope do any of us have in comprehending grace?
I constantly need to be reminded, like I needed to be reminded that day that it wasn’t really my $20 that Aaron Martin ended up using for gas. Perhaps, I was its steward for a while, but so often I forget that everything here is freely given—the air we breathe, the sun that rises and sets on us all, the rain that brings refreshing and flood. Yeah, even that $20 was, as the hymnist Stuart Hamblen puts it, “only borrowed for a while.” And while, yes, it didn’t feel honorable to lie to me to get some gas, just as I feel anxious when I hand over a few dollars to someone asking on the street, more often than not it’s not really about the money. The hurt comes from the shame that I was swindled, that I was foolish in believing the lie. And how more lavish the love of God to bless us, even when He is never fooled by our deceptions, even when He already knows how we intend to misuse his gifts. He does know after all what it’s like to be human, to be tempted, and all it takes to overcome that temptation, which most days I find myself lacking, when I forget that’s how grace works, that we are lavished with the unconditional love of God, and how silly of me to make the distinction of his love being unconditional. For if it is love at all, there is no other kind. If it is conditional, then it isn’t really love.
I asked my mother about Ken recently. It’s one of the most palpable memories of my childhood. I was five and he was sitting on a bench at the mall across the way a little from a Mcdonald’s. My dad held my hand and we stood at a distance while they chatted, while my mom slipped him a little money, and went into the McDonalds to buy him a burger. Later that day in the food court, while sitting at the table to my own meal, my own burger, my parents tried to explain to me what a homeless person was, and I cried. Five-year-old me just couldn’t comprehend that homelessness exists in a world with such abundance.
As an adult, it’s easier to gloss over that sort of pain and injustice.
“He had a good job at the dairy,” my mom said over the phone, “before he became an alcoholic.”
“His son is a dentist and lives in Manoa,” she continued, Manoa being one of Hawaii’s most affluent neighborhoods, “and his son would be happy to let his dad live when him but he keeps refusing because of all those mental health issues.” The tone in her voice glazed with a thin veneer of what I perceived as judgment.
“Then why’d you keep doing it?” I asked. “Why’d you keep giving him money and food when he was just going to keep making bad choices?”
“Because none of that matters,” she said without pause or hesitation. “None of that matters when someone needs to be loved.”