One day this week, Wayne clapped me on one shoulder and loudly claimed, “You should have run for mayor!” I laughed, and he then proclaimed, “No one can steal a stove!” To which I replied, “Or a refrigerator!” He clapped me on the shoulder again and said, “Exactly!” Last week, he had told me that he had been accused of stealing the refrigerator where he was staying.
I have known Wayne for most of the almost five years I have been working at Trinity Food Ministry in Saint Louis. Our relationship began as reactionary and tended to escalate quickly. He would come to the Pantry for groceries at least twice a month. The regulation is that a guest may get groceries once per calendar month. To get around that, he would claim that it wasn’t him who came the first time; it was his brother. I was fairly naive so it was allowed for a couple of months.
But then he became more belligerent and irritating, so I shut it down. I told him he had to prove who he was each time he came. I didn’t care who he was, but he had to show me if he wanted groceries.
In that he rarely had his ID, this caused him to be even more aggressive in his attitude. His eyes would narrow, he would “get his face on” and he would ready himself to scare me into backing down. I didn’t.
This went on for at least a couple of years. We had several shouting matches and stare-downs. Then, Wayne didn’t show up for a long while. As is the case on a normal basis, I wondered a few times about him but was too busy to search out an answer. Plus, the Pantry was quieter when he wasn’t there. It was easier.
By the time he returned, I was different. In that period where he was gone, I learned that a big problem with many people is that they do not know they are loved. Or they do not believe themselves lovable. When I saw Wayne return, I greeted him with an exclamation of not only surprise but of joy. I said, “Where have you been? I have missed you! I am glad to see you!”
He looked at me as if I was crazy. Yet his response was a smile. While it took him a few visits to believe me, he came to understand that things were different.
Wayne had not changed much in that time he was away. He still aggravated the bejeesus out of people. He continues to do so. But I have learned that when he narrows his eyes and his face appears to be confrontational, often, he is trying to figure out how to respond to the one causing his confusion. He can be lead away from confrontation by redirecting his attention.
I don’t kid myself. I know that out on the street he has a tough time. He has been put out of more places than I go into. He is classified as a problem and treated as such by most people who do not have the time or the desire to meet him where he is. His life is difficult.
I have watched his mental health decline over this past year. Most conversations are like the one with which I began this. His main themes include his father whom he loved, his high school years, and whether I have Spam or sardines to give him. Interspersed between these themes, a strange statement about refrigerators or stoves or me being mayor will be tossed in. For the most part, he knows he is safe at the Pantry and that I will listen to him for a little while. Somewhere during the conversation, we will laugh.
I would like to say that Wayne is the biggest problem at Pantry but he isn’t even close. But I have found the key to getting along with Wayne. It is to let him know he is loved and that he is worth my time. He knows this because I call him by name and tell him so. He is fed in body and in spirit. For a minute, it is enough.
I try to use that key with others but for some, addiction or mental health problems are just too much of a barrier. These problems filter out love.
Yet life continues.
There are so many things about each of us by which we can be judged daily, moment to moment. Too often, we judge in a flash, mistaking confusion for arrogance, taking one instance and identifying a person by that forever.
We are always beloved, regardless of our knowing this or not. When we get to know one another, when we listen to one another, when we see one another, and, in those actions, we learn that we are loveable and that we are loved. When we set aside our judgmental nature, we enter what Gregory Boyle says is God’s “jurisdiction.”
Within that God-place, we become Beloved Community. This is Jubilee.
Are we there yet? Are we even close? Maybe so, maybe not. For certain, we are closer than we have been.