church. We meet in Savannah's gorgeous, historic Lucas Theater, a rented space to which we have access only on Sundays. Setting up and tearing down are a part of our usual schtick. Storage is limited as well. I find myself trying to explain this to a visitor in the lobby, who grabs my attention as I am briskly jetting from point A to point B. As a church, we are used to this. The doors are open. People wander in, and of course they are more than welcome—that's why we're here in the first place! So we all do our best to greet new people, amid the joyful chaos.
This gentleman is a drifter; probably homeless. It takes about one and a half seconds for me to realize that my new friend, who has very kind eyes, is playing me. We're used to this as well. I say "we," meaning our church collectively—especially those on staff, and volunteer team leaders, including me. Our church meets in a lovely urban area surrounded by city squares—parks—so a small part of our congregation is made up of people who are homeless, or are on the edge of homelessness: alcoholics, recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, parolees, the mentally ill, you name it. Having them in church is a beautiful thing, and presents special challenges, for which we receive special training. On top of the training, I've learned the hard way, in this very theater lobby, how not to handle Players—a lengthy discussion for another day.
I get him a cup of coffee, knowing he will request loads of sugar, which he does. Free calories. Then he delivers his line. He just got off the bus from Atlanta, and while he was distracted in the station, someone stole his coat. Can we help him?
After sheepishly explaining our lack of physical resources (the space is rented, we have no storage, etc.), I grab every available friend of the male persuasion within a ten foot radius and try to get them involved. My hope, I guess, is that one of them will take the bull by the horns and handle this gracefully, with wisdom, kindness and authority. In other words, I am eyeing their coats. I step away to call home, to grab a pastor, to think for a minute, all to no avail. When I return, my drifter is alone again in the middle of the fray, looking chilly. That's when it occurs to me: we're about the same size, this man and I. He is petite, not much taller than me. And my super-chic black trench coat, which I bought at a discount department store for fourteen measly dollars, is a few sizes too big for me, so it might just fit him. AND, my husband has always hated this jacket. "Really," I tell him, unpinning the broach Gray gave me for Christmas from the lapel and fishing my car keys out of the pocket, "you're doing me a favor by taking this thing off my hands."
I suddenly realize, everyone can see us. At this point, three awful thoughts make me ill. First, I am sure that my friends on staff at the church are shaking their heads, tisk-tisking me. (They would never tisk-tisk me, not in a million years.) All of the training they've provided flashes through my brain: Do show love and concern. Don't give rides. Don't give money. Don't enable bad choices. But he didn't ask for money. He is cold, that's all. I hate being cold. If I had no coat, I'd be miserable. Second, I am hyper-aware of Jesus' words, "Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them," (Matthew 6:1a). Here we are in the middle of an increasingly crowded theater lobby, where all eyes can see this drifter, who is having trouble squeezing into my very feminine, highly fashionable coat. What a sight: Tom Joad meets Ava Gabor. (The jacket is my only glamor item, by the way; I'm in a T-shirt and jeans underneath.) It's a tight fit, so donning the jacket is not a subtle procedure. Should I have ushered him outside first? Or into some dark corner? Am I describing a drug deal? The need for discretion doesn't occur to me until he is waving my satiny black trench coat aloft, struggling to get his second arm into its dangling sleeve.
My third thought is the worst: what if anyone thinks I am being especially kind? Yes, this is an act of kindness, but my gift is not sacrificial. I have other coats at home, and the means to replace this one. My sole motive is problem-solving. See a need, fill a need. And, let's face it, this man's need only begins with the coat.
Pride instantly kicks in. I don't want my friends to think I'm "performing," or to think that I don't know my Scripture. My brain is spinning. Adding to the cerebral hurricane, I'm a little peeved that, as a church, we aren't able to have resources at the ready for this kind of thing. A stack of blankets would do. I trust the wisdom of our leadership implicitly—countless approaches to solve this and similar problems have been tried out over many years—but still, I just wish things could be different. And yes, maybe I'm also slightly irked that none of the guys I snagged to help out, stepped up to the plate. Why did they abandon him? WE are the church. WE should fill in the gaps, right?
At this point I feel something like actual shame. I'm all but tapping my foot, willing the coat to fit. We both hear the distinct sound of fabric straining and ripping as he lowers his arms. Once he's finally settled, looking like Charlie Chaplin in drag, I flee to the balcony, which is my usual habit, to pray. I do pray for him—my new friend, Richard the Drifter—but I am so flustered that mostly, I pray that no one will see me when I finally emerge for the service, and that someone will collect my leather-bound New Testament, which I left at his feet, and put it somewhere safe. Or, that he took it. I wish I had slipped it into the pocket of the jacket, or that I had offered it to him. Finally, I pray that God will deliver my poor tired brain from all of these ridiculous thoughts, so I can worship and learn and serve as I should.
For the most part, God answers every one of these prayers. As usual, I'm one of the last out of the theater. I see Richard. He is asleep, wearing my coat, nestled in a seat in the last row, his head resting against the back wall, cozy as a house cat. My bible is waiting for me in the volunteer area off to the side of the lobby. I make it onto the sidewalk without having to interact with anyone. Thank you, Jesus.
The next day I crack open my binders of notes from Bible Study Fellowship, looking for something specific for a friend. Flipping though hundreds of pages, my eye is drawn to this question which follows the first loaves and fishes story in Matthew: "When you are confronted with a need, do you say, 'Oh, send them home, we can't do anything about it?'... Or do you come to Him with what you have and obey His command, 'You give them something to eat?' " Immediately my mind is eased.
How great is our God, to provide this little bit of reassurance for me?
If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them to you. ~ Luke 6:29b-31