Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sam (Part 2) The Twenty Dollar Bill

Sam is not a Deist. I was wrong. He is about as vehemently Muslim a man as you could find. He is just not practicing.

I spoke with Sam again today, this time both before and after the service/meal. He was dressed exactly the same, his beard was exactly the same length, the difference this time was that someone had pulled out all of his stops.

There is no doubt in my mind that he sought me out today because he felt like he could carry on a decent semi-intellectual conversation with me. He started right away, pulling me aside as soon as he walked in the door. I reiterate, once again, that he is a very intelligent man, this time we moved away from politics into religion plain and simple. It was fine in the beginning. The man is capable of hanging onto vast libraries of knowledge, and displayed it readily. He recounted to me word for word conversations he had had with preachers down through the years. Then, seemingly without warning, he went from amiable to polemical.

He started off by attacking Hindus for being illogical. "How can you worship monkey gods or elephant head gods, like that? It is the stupidest thing on earth." He grew up in India, where Muslim/Hindu relations still leave much to be desired. Not surprising.

It was the next move that caught me off-guard. "You know, I was talking with a pastor once who said to me, 'You become the kind of thing that you worship.' I said, 'That must be true. Look at how the Hindus worship these animals, and they act just like them.' Once I was speaking with a Jew who looked up from his lunch and told me: 'You know Jesus was a bastard right?' completely unprovoked. So I said to this preacher, 'If you become what you worship is that why so many Christians have babies out of wedlock?" Sam went on. "You know Josh. More than 85% of births in the US are babies born out of wedlock."

I challenged him on this point. "I don't think those numbers are quite right. I know the number is high, but I don't think it's that high."

He became incensed. "I do not lie to you! I read it in an Encyclopedia Britannica." Here he proceeded to list off the percentages he had read for other "Christian" countries. "I go to AA meetings all the time just to hear their stories because I think they are interesting. Alcoholics ruin their lives and get pregnant and do terrible things because of alcohol. In Muslim countries we do not have any problems like this." In America you cannot even pass a constitutional amendment to keep people away from alcohol. Muslim countries are far superior.

"Look at all the evil that Christian countries have done… crusades, genocide, etc." I tried to interject at this point that Muslim countries have done similarly bad things too, that it is best to compare the ideal of each religion to the ideal of others or the reality of one to the reality of others. Bad idea. "Lies, those are all lies! He was getting quite heated at this point so I tried to cool things off, but the train was already moving. Back and forth he went from a bastard Jesus to Alcoholism for minutes on end. Finally I made up a reason to go to a different part of the room.

We were able to part company on a cordial note. I gave him a copy of the book of John, which I am sure he will not read, but I did confirm one thing with him in the end, "You know Sam, for someone so proud of Muslim accomplishments, all your talk about Jesus doesn't square too well with the Koran. Are you really a Deist after all?"

"Yeah, Thomas Jefferson is my hero. I want to be like him. He read the book of Revelation and said it was written by a crazy person. I believe there is a God somewhere, at least I am not an agnostic or atheist right?" He chuckled. "I am just too much of a free spirit to go to the mosque." That's as close as I've gotten to finding out why he is on the streets in the first place.

After reflecting on our conversation, I find that I am not as much offended by what he said, as I am frustrated by my inability to reason with him. I am not sure if I want to talk to Sam again. I just hope that I do a better job becoming like Jesus, than he has done becoming like Thomas Jefferson.



Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Call for Submissions: What is in a Name?

I have gotten some e-mails from readers recently that have contained personal anecdotes about homeless experiences and/or accounts of their own lives on the streets. Some of them are pretty interesting in their perspective and detail; so I decided to extend an opportunity to anyone who reads this blog.

If you have a story about homelessness that you would like to contribute to the site, please send me an e-mail.

NOTH's new e-mail address is: .

I am looking for anything that honestly describes people's condition, that movingly tells their life-stories, and that includes the name of the individual. Names are essential because they bring the homeless into the realm of humanity. It is easier to love someone when you know their name, it is harder to fear or hate them. Knowing and remembering someone's name shows them that you think they matter as an individual; and that they're not subhuman or a meaningless statistic. What would you think if I told you that President Obama knew me, and called me by my name? That would mean that to the Commander and Chief, I stand out as a unique, knowable entity, and
not just another face in a crowd of 300million citizens. I am worthy of special attention, worthy enough for him to memorize the most elemental feature of my person: my name.

Think about how different Reagan's speech would have sounded if he had said: "Whoever-you-are-Soviet-leader, you ought to tear down this wall." Names are powerful. Think about the first time you heard the name of your beloved. Remember how it tingled in your ear and intoxicated your insides? Now you could call to the person who had been distracting your mind all day, and they would turn and acknowledge you too. (Amazing!) Think about Mary, next to the tomb, trying to find the body of her Lord. It was not until Jesus sweetly whispered her name that she recognized him.

If you are interested in talking to a homeless person, but are intimidated by the idea or are unsure how to start, feel free to shoot me an e-mail and I can send you some suggestions.

Thanks for everyone who has given me honest feedback on this project thus far. I appreciate your comments.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sam and the Hundred Dollar Bill

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.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

John: A Failed Interview

I recently had an idea to start a podcast on this blog. I thought, "I could get a nice digital recorder, have homeless people tell me their stories, put the whole thing to music, and voice-over some narration like "This American Life" or "All Things Considered". It'll be a big hit!" Because I also interview people for my work at uwemp, it seemed like a win-win. A new recorder, a new feature for the blog. It sounded like a good idea at the time anyway.

I spent several months writing articles for Demand Studios to raise the money for the recorder and my great technological leap forward. After countless articles and rewrites I finally have enough money. Today is the day. I go to Radio Shack, pick the one I want (I had already spent several hours comparison shopping online), and walk out with my head held high. On the way to my car I realize that I need to go to the bathroom. I made a b-line for the Wendy's across the parking lot.

Who do I see waiting for me outside the door? John. Scraggly hair, mustache, blue sweatshirt; he's asking for another dollar to even out his change for a double stacker inside. "YES!" I think to myself, "Providence has struck! I've only had my new recorder for a few minutes and I will have a chance to try it out."

I offer to take John inside and buy him what he wants with the little cash I have left-over. He graciously accepts. We chit chat for a little while in line. When he gets his food; we sit down, and I rip into my package like a spoiled brat on Christmas. I couldn't get the batteries into the machine fast enough. He told me a little about himself as we sat. He had originally come from Ann Arbor Michigan and had lived in the San Fernando Valley for a while. He was talkative and asked me questions about myself.

I answered politely, but was waiting until I could record the conversation before I asked him about the 'good stuff.' I tested the recorder and it worked beautifully. I told him that I like to learn and share people's stories. I asked him if it was okay with him if I asked him some questions and he said it was. Then I asked him if I could record the conversation and his demeanor immediately changed.

"I really just need to be walking. I don't like to sit in one place for too long."

That was it, conversation over. He finished his meal, I walked with him out the door, and we said our goodbyes. The end.

In the hours since this colossal failure I have begun to examine what went wrong. A number of things might have incited his abrupt departure: 1. Maybe John was genuinely asking for cash, and not a meal, and felt my coziness with him was an intrusion. I doubt this, as he was rather friendly in the beginning (though maybe he felt that he was obligated to be). 2. Maybe he was comfortable talking about his story, but not having it recorded. If a complete stranger asked to record stories from my life I would most certainly turn him down. 3. Maybe things just moved too quickly, and he felt like I was trying to manipulate or get something out of him. 4. Maybe his reasons for becoming homeless, or something else in his past were too shameful, painful, or otherwise private to discuss in such an unanticipated way. 5. Maybe he just didn't like sitting in one place for too long.

In any case, I hope this will prove to be a useful lesson for me. Because I don't think it would be ethical to record their stories without their consent, I think that I will need to build more rapport before offering to record them. I will probably need to have a substantial trusting relationship with them first. That is happening with the people I know from around the church, it will just take more time and patience. I certainly don't want people to feel used. I enjoy their stories and want other people to learn about them. Perhaps I shouldn't try recording them at all.

I welcome your thoughts or comments about these concerns. I fully acknowledge that I have plenty to learn. Speaking of which, while trying to download what little I had recorded to my computer, I accidentally erased all of the files. Alas, the podcast that will never be.