My congregation helped serve hot meals today. They did a great job (as always), and I was impressed with their hard work and great attitudes.
I translated the brief sermon from Spanish to English and afterwards spent some time milling around and talking with the people who came. After the meal a certain gentleman waved me over to his table from the other side of the room.
His white, week-long beard stood in sharp contrast to his russet-colored skin. Some curling silvery hair spilled from under his baseball cap and over the back collar of a faded blue jacket. His clothes were in bad shape, and his hands were grubby from living outdoors. His eyes, however, were very much alive.
He asked, "How do you say 'carpenter' in Spanish? Because, you know, Jesus was a carpenter right?"
I was somewhat taken aback, as I expected him to be Hispanic. I asked him to repeat the question and noted that his accent didn't quite fit with my preconceived notions. I answered his question, and then learned that he was from India.
If I've done the math right Sam came to the United States in the mid 1970's. He grew up in Delhi and graduated with a double major in Economics and Political Science. He moved to Chicago because he wanted to further his education by studying computer science.
He told me, "I remember when I first moved to Chicago. I got a job as a quality inspector at a local factory. I was always a perfectionist so it was the perfect job for me." He laughed. "You know it's cold in Chicago. I stepped outside one day and the wind-chill factor was -87 degrees. The first meal I ever had in the US was at Denny's, and that day I wanted to go to Denny's again. I went to the restaurant and looked inside, but no one was inside. I looked up at the sign and it said 'Open 24 Hours' so I walked right in. It took a while to get service that day; I think there were only a couple people working."
Sam and I talked about all kinds of things: politics, religion, and the Vietnam War. He told me that he grew up as a Muslim, but wasn't one any longer because the founders of the United States were brilliant men and they were Deists, so he figured he should be a Deist too. I don't mention this to slight him at all. He wasn't a dull man. He told me when he first came to LA he would spend all day in the library at UCLA and eat meals they handed out at night with outdoor moving screenings.
I tried different ways of asking him why someone as educated and intellectually capable as himself would choose to live on the streets, but he deflected my question each time. He chose to tell me instead that he grew up in the Merchant/ Business caste in India. "My family always told me that if you work for another man you will be poor your whole life. That is the way we were brought up, to have great success in business." Even though he was a Muslim it was supposed to be his destiny.
A well-read man, literally bred for monetary success, had a degree in economics, and was sitting before me homeless. The most ironic part for me though, was he had rejected a personable, knowable God because he wanted to emulate Benjamin Franklin, but didn't seem to follow any of Franklin's maxims about wealth or hard work. I hope I get to speak with Sam again.