I get up before the sun most days to take Tiger for his morning lavatory and constitutional. There are people out, both driving and walking - especially runners, other folks with dogs, street-people, cops, Pedal People, street-cleaners, and others getting coffee at Brueggers a few doors down from us. It is really kind of busy in a quiet sort of way.
Early today as I was suiting up to go out into the chill, (I look like Nanuck of the North!), I noticed the strong odor of cigarette smoke in the hall just leading into our apartment. Since we moved here in July that smell has not greeted me in the morning. As I moved closer to the top of the landing I could hear a voice, especially a woman's voice. It was not conversational, but sounded rather like a newscaster. No one was responding to her voice. I wondered if perhaps someone was at work earlier than normal in the offices below, or in the adjacent building and they were listening to the news.
So I put Tiger on his leash and headed down the stairs to the door into our apartment. As I did, the woman's voice got louder and the smell of cigarette smoke was heavy in the air. I was a little apprehensive because I suspected what I actually encountered when I opened the door. While I have never been threatened or accosted by a homeless person or addict since moving here things do happen from time to time in Northampton.
Sitting at the top of the landing to our apartment was Robert. He was sitting on his haunches, dressed in a heavy military-style coat, gloves, a hood and a knit cap atop his head. On the floor next to him was a battery-powered radio and a can that housed cigarette butts. The landing reeked of cigarettes and the chill had reached the top of the stairs into the building. He had the worn and grizzled face of a veteran of the streets. I had seen him a few days earlier near the dumpsters with another homeless man behind La Fiorentina on Kirkland Avenue (the covered walk-through between Pleasant Street and the parking lots near the parking garage. He was loud and drunk, and I have to say a little threatening as he was looking at me and swearing. I am not sure the swearing was aimed at me, but I was a little unnerved.
He turned to me looking a little startled and said quickly "Hey man, I don't want any trouble. I just came in to get warm, I have not trashed the place. I spent the night sleeping on cardboard and needed to get warm. I will leave in 45 minutes when the sun comes up. He reiterated he wanted no trouble and meant no harm. He also really was taken with Tiger.
He also lied and said he was not smoking. You could have cut the air with a knife.
I told him to take as much time as he needed to warm up. I did not mind him being there. He thanked me. I headed out so Tiger could do his business. I was close by because I wanted to get back quickly. Tricia was still sleeping in the apartment and I needed to be wary. When I returned in a few minutes, he thanked me again and said he would be leaving soon. I offered twice to bring him coffee so he could warm up. He graciously refused adding that he was really chilled - not sure what he was trying convey with that remark. We parted ways.
As I thought about what happened I realized how different my life has become from our days at the Center For Renewal in Simsbury. I had no encounters with people like Robert. I would have been very uncomfortable if I had. Just ignorance really.
Being here, I have found a curious barrier in evidence when interacting with someone Robert's of Northampton. At least, I experience it that way. Our lives don't intersect normally. We don't trust each other because we make assumptions to size up and categorize the other person quickly to maintain a safe distance. There is no discernible door to enter when we run across each other in our separate comings and goings. We are true strangers at multiple levels.
Being in Northampton and around such folks, serving them at the Interfaith Shelter, getting to know them has opened me to their humanity and changed my perception of them little by little. I know I am here to serve them and bring Jesus. I am glad I am learning how to relate to them. They bear the image of God and have a soul. They are the "least of these my brothers" to me. I want to make a difference in their lives and treat them with dignity because of the image they bear and because Jesus is especially fond of them. They need to know that even through a simple encounter with the likes of me.
So I will keep open to these folks, I hope. I want to be humanized by them, and humbled. I want to know the power of Jesus to transform their brokenness, or the sorrow of Jesus when they refuse his invitation to the bitter end.
I want to see the Kingdom of the Living God reclaim its own, especially those who live on my fringes and might slip away with me never noticing.
Robert blessed me today. I am pretty sure he has no idea of that.