Sunday morning, full of jet lag, I went to church earlier than usual choosing to attend the 8:45 service. Also, I was feeling generous, so I wanted to place part of my own stash of pumpkins around the big sign at church just to get the world into the spirit of autumn. As I was unloading the pumpkins, two raggedy men walking together, one black and one white, strolled past me. As I said, I was feeling benevolent so I tossed them a cheerful, “Good Morning!” They each responded with a nod and a smile. Having done my good deed for the day (actually my second good deed if you count the pumpkins), I strolled into church a couple of minutes early, feeling a tad bit puffed up. Guess who was sitting on the back row? The same two men I acknowledged only five minutes earlier. Upon closer inspection I could see that they were not the types with which my Presbyterian congregation is accustomed to worshipping. Feed them, yes. Sit next to them….not likely. When they saw me come in they each smiled for, in a way, we had already met. Surprising even myself, I put out my hand and said, “Hi. I am Donna Gay.” The white man, missing one front tooth and dirty from stem to stern took my hand and shook it. “Hi, I am James.” I then offered my hand to his companion who was equally soiled and out of place. He took my hand but said nothing. He squinted with one eye and closed the other as I became acutely aware for the first time that he was mentally challenged. His friend, clearly the alpha, responded for him.
“His name is Jerrell.”
“Hi Jerrell,” I said. “Nice to meet you two. May I sit with you?” I said surprising myself yet again.
“Yes ma’am,” came James’ timid response. So I sat next to James as Jerell leaned in to get a better look at me. It was then that I became aware that each of these gentlemen had not bathed in several days at best. So the three of us sat there together as the service began and the first sacred music of the day began to play. The piece was How Great Thou Art and, much to my surprise, James gently hummed along, his eyes closed. Throughout the responsive readings, hymns and prayers I steadfastly offered the written texts to James so he could read along, but he always shook his head, no thank you. At first I thought it was because the poor man couldn’t read. Soon however, it dawned on me that he couldn’t see well enough to read, for he was not wearing glasses. Well, no kidding. I cannot see well enough to read without glasses either, unless someone three feet away holds the book for me. Also, I noticed that James had very subtly been inching his way away from me. What his problem was with me I couldn’t fathom, for I certainly smelled fresh as a daisy having bathed and brushed my teeth less than an hour before. Then it hit me. He was distancing himself from me because he knew that he wasn’t clean and he didn’t’ want to offend me. Jerrell got bored with staring at me and began to nod off. James too began to fight heavy eyelids and more than once, tilted over in my direction to the point I thought his head would rest on my shoulder, but it didn’t. He jerked awake and upright just as his head neared mine. He did this over and over. Jerrell eventually gave up the fight and simply laid down on the pew. When James realized that his ward was shamelessly napping, he poked him and gave him a nonverbal cue that meant, “Sit up and act right or else!” So Jerrell sat up and behaved. During communion, when the plate of bread was passed to Jerell, he grabbed a handful of the elements and shoved them in his mouth before James could stop him. James shot him another look and then thought again about chastising his friend. Instead he patted him on the shoulder and gave me an apologetic glance.
“It’s OK,” I mouthed to him. Jerrell looked t me and smiled as he chewed. When the cups were passed around, James locked eyes with his buddy as if to say, “Only ONE Jerrell. Just ONE.” Slowly, Jerrell took one small cup of juice and sipped it as if it were high tea. James just shook his head. When the service ended I walked my new acquaintances outside and told them I was glad they came and thanked them for letting me sit with them. Then I asked if there was anything I could do for them. James ordered Jerrell.
“Tell her! Maybe she can get you something!” Jerrell just looked at the ground. Tell her Jerrell!” No response came so James spoke for him. “He ain’t eaten for three days. He’s hungry. Do you have any food?” So I went into the church office to the place where we keep snack bags for homeless people who stop by occasionally and grabbed two of them. When I handed them over I was met with gratitude and in an instant I was looking at their backs as they walked away, digging into the bags as they walked. I have thought of them a lot for two days now and wondered how many other churches they attended last week in hopes of finding a soft, quiet safe place to sit along with a communion wafer and a sip of wine or juice. I also thought about myself. It is easy to deliver charity to others when you have had a good night’s sleep in a clean soft bed, and your belly is full. I wonder where they will sleep tonight and if they went to mass this afternoon. I wonder what is in store for them and it makes me sad, but at least they have each other, just like characters from a Steinbeck novel. Actually I hope that, for them, things work out better than that.