Last Friday through Sunday I attended Revolutionary Love: Tools, Tactics, and Truth-telling to Dismantle Racism. The conference was held at the Middle Collegiate Church on the Lower East Side in New York City. With session titles such as “The Art of Sacred Confrontations,” “The Moral Crisis of Whiteness,” and “Dismantling Unconscious Racial Bias,” it was an intense two and half days.
By Sunday morning, my introverted self was feeling more than a bit drained. While there was a nice balance of breakout sessions and “all hands” sessions to provide small group opportunities, the noise and pulse of the city had plain worn me out. Although I live half way between Washington, DC, and Baltimore, MD, my little neighborhood features deer, owls, foxes, squirrels, and a great variety of birds. My head longed for a piece of that quiet.
I decided to lounge in a bit Sunday – sleeping in would be a misnomer with the whirl of traffic and the slamming of the balls on the nearby blacktop –then head for a nearby bakery to get some goodies to take home. On my way into the shop I noticed a man sitting on the ground outside and on the way out I decided to stop and say hello.
I put a few dollars in his cup, for which he thanked me, and I asked him what his story was. “It’s this,” he said, pulling down his shirt from the collar to reveal a nasty heart surgery scar. He went on to explain his defibrillator, which he said the doctors hadn’t even explained to him – he thought he only got a pacemaker.
The man appeared to be in his mid to late 60s, but he soon told me he was all of 53. I call him Fred to protect his identity. Fred said he lives on the streets because the shelters are too dangerous. “They are full of gangs,” he explained. “You can get shot, stabbed. I’d rather take my chances out here.” Fred said he has a mother and a sister but “My mother is too set in her ways to take me in and my sister won’t talk to me because of my homosexuality. She’s a Baptist. So here I am.”
Fred asked me if I wanted a bagel. He said people coming out of the bakery give him items, but he can’t eat many of them either because he can’t chew them (he doesn’t have many teeth) or because of his diabetes. He is able to trade them with other homeless people for things he can eat.
As I went to sit next to Fred, he told me not to do that and get dirty. “I don’t care,” I said. I felt more peace and calm with Fred than I felt in many other places of the hectic city. Fred told me he often thinks about walking into the street in front of a car. I told him about my recent hospitalization for suicidal ideations. I didn’t have any food with me he could eat (almonds? nope. granola bar? nope) or any water. I did have a cooling camping towel, though, so I gave him that and explained how it worked.
I told Fred I was at the conference across the street. Fred said he liked that church and it was trying to find him housing. “I don’t have AIDS or HIV and I don’t drink. That’s pretty amazing for an old Black gay like me,” he said. I asked Fred if he wanted to come to church with me. “Oh, honey. I haven’t had a shower in so long. That’s the one thing. I can get some food. There’s a place around the corner that lets me go to the bathroom. But there’s no place to get a good shower.”
“Well, Fred, I’m going to be on my way,” I said. “Thanks for stopping,” he replied. “Not many people stop. I get kicked. My cup gets kicked over. I get spit on. I get young, white men is suits calling me nigger. ‘Nigger, get a job. Nigger, get up from there.’ Not many people stop though.”
“Next time you’re in the city, if I’m still alive, I hope you’ll come see me.” He got up and we embraced.
“I will Fred, I promise.”
Revolutionary Love. Talk to a stranger.