Unusual Day, Beautiful Grace
Today was a day that, in many ways, started out like a great many do. I got up fairly early and got ready for work. As usual, I spent some time talking with my wife about the anticipated challenges and blessings of the day. We prayed together and off I went to my Monday through Friday job as a software engineer; a profession that I’ve worked for a quarter of a century, and the job that pays the bills and costs of living in New York, where I serve as a vicar.
As is somewhat usual, my thoughts were a strange mix of turmoil and peace. The peace that comes of faith and morning prayer, the turmoil that comes from the constant attempt to balance working as a software engineer as my proverbial tent-making profession while at the same time seeking to serve in God’s church, working towards ordination into the Office of the Holy Ministry.
This particular morning, though, something unusual happened on my way through the lobby. The doorman was not yet on-station, and the lobby was empty except for a woman also heading out to catch the bus. Yet, as I crossed the lobby, movement in the back corner of the room caught my eye. Sprawled in one of the chairs was a young woman, perhaps in her mid-twenties, and what was truly unusual was that she was wrapped in one of the protective pads that are used in the elevator to protect the walls from damage when furniture is moved.
My immediate thought was that she was homeless and had sought shelter in the lobby. I sighed to myself; there have been staff cuts in our building, and there have been more cases of homeless folks sheltering in the stairwells and basement. In addition there has been cases of drug use, and even ones of thieves entering the building and stealing from the apartments. Still, she looked harmless enough, and I saw no point in making an issue over the situation. The other woman on her way to work, in a very New York way, took no notice at all.
Then, as I stepped outside, I noticed that it was raining. While I had my umbrella, I also realized that I didn’t have a jacket. It was a bit chillier than I’d thought. Forgoing the 7:20 bus, I headed back inside to get my jacket. As I did, a thought struck me, that I would take a cell phone picture of the woman and ask Erin, my wife, if she knew anything about her. When I got back up to the apartment, Erin told me that the woman was actually not homeless, but married to an abusive man in the building, and that he had probably either kicked her out for the night, or that she had left to escape the abuse. Erin went on to tell me that multiple efforts had been made to get this young woman to get help, but none had been met with any success.
When I got back down to the lobby, I approached the woman, and from a few feet away, gently said, “Miss?” several times, until she woke up. When she did, her eyes were pretty wide. There was fear there, but there was also an expression of resolution on her face, an absence of shame that she was sitting in the lobby of the building wrapped in an elevator pad. I asked her if she needed help. She responded with a story about going out to do laundry but had locked herself out, which was pretty obviously untrue, as this building actually has in-unit laundry facilities. She also had no laundry basket. I asked her if I could call the super, but she said that she had already, and that her mother was actually on the way there as well.
There was a part of me that wanted to push a bit harder, to give her my card, to tell her that if she needed help, to reach out. But – simply put, I could not find either the courage or the words. I am not sure which. Regardless, there was something in her eyes after I offered her help a second time that told me that I had been given the grace to give her something that she needed even in the rejected offer. So, feeling a bit good about myself, I headed off to play software engineer for the day. I was pretty optimistic, and in less turmoil. I had been able to do a grace filled act, I felt, and this would make the internal conflict between service to the world and service to God a bit easier today.
The morning progressed as many do. I presided over a few meetings, handled a few inter-team situations, and then headed out to lunch with a friend of mine at work, David. Now, my friendship with David is an unusual one. David is Jewish, but reformed to the point that it is difficult to distinguish his Judaism from secular humanism. David is also incredibly progressive in his politics and worldview. Over the four years we’ve known each other, a great friendship has developed. While it is true that there is a part of me that has been intentional about maintaining the friendship from my side, in attempt to minister as best as I can in a Liberal corporate environment – and I truly feel called to “eat with sinners,” as it were – there is also a true kinship there. We had a good lunch, talked about how intrusive technology was changing the way people think, and headed back to the office. On the way back, he headed off to the bank, and I to see if my glasses were ready at an optometrist near my office.
I headed south down Lexington Avenue and crossed 55th Street, which itself is across from the Central Synagogue, a truly formidable temple and the center of much of the Jewish religious life in Midtown Manhattan. At the corner, huddled against the wall, was an old man with a long and unkempt beard. He was wearing a suit that had probably been donated by a shelter for a job interview. To be honest, though, the suit was in better condition than the old man, who looked truly defeated. He, like many of the homeless, was trying to make eye contact with the multitude of New Yorkers that were streaming past, but it being Midtown at lunch time, no one would even spare him a glance. I briefly made eye contact, nodded, and walked on past, resolving to give him a few dollars on the way back.
I completed my business at the optometrist and headed north again towards my office. As I approached the old man, I reached into my pocket for the dollars that I had put there to give him. I made eye contact as I approached and he did not hold out his hand, as I had initially expected. Rather, as I reached him, he simply asked me to help him stand up.
Now, in New York, especially in this neighborhood, to touch a homeless person really isn’t something that’s done, especially one as dirty and unkempt as this man. Still, I did not have a problem with it. To be honest, the part of me that resents never being allowed to speak directly to God, the love of neighbor as commanded by Jesus, and the significance of the precious gift of faith in my work environment was present at the back of my mind in this moment. Thus, I held out my hand to help him up.
Suddenly, though, as I looked down at the hand that clasped mine, I was filled with revulsion. I myself suffer from psoriasis, and am used to skin conditions, but the hand that gripped mine was covered with sores that extended up his arm. Under the sleeve of his suit jacket, I could see a poorly applied gauze bandage, black with dirt, suggesting rot underneath. I wanted to pull away immediately, but something stopped me. Yet, as I struggled to help him to his feet, I realized that he was also extremely intoxicated and he was heavier than I had realized, even given his slight frame. Simply put, I did not have the strength to pull him to his feet. I was trying to lift the dead weight of a fully-grown man with one arm, which was beyond me. He too realized this, looked up at me and said, “Give me your other hand.”
This is where I failed. I said, “I do not have the strength,” while not giving him my other hand. He said again, “Give me your other hand.” Again, I responded, “I don’t have the strength.” Even in the moment, though, I knew I wasn’t talking about my physical strength. I was talking about my ability to increase my touch with this diseased, filthy, drunken, old man. There was too much revulsion, and even a bit of shame at what others in my workplace would think (so much for evangelism through works). And so it was that I let him back down, said, “I’m sorry” and began to walk away.
As I moved along, though, something stopped me. With just a few steps, I felt a deep sense of shame, but more than that, there was a knowledge that I absolutely had to turn and go back. I certainly did not want to, but I had to do so. Somehow, there was really not a lot of choice being given to me, so I turned and took the several steps back. The old man looked up at me. I noticed that he had several dollars in one hand and a small bottle of vodka. I told him to put his things in his pocket, and to give me his hands. He put his things down and did so. This time, I was able to help him to his feet, unstable as they were.
Making sure he was supported with one hand against the wall and would not fall, he looked directly into my face – and there he was. It shocked me to the core. Gone was the haze of alcohol in the eyes of the man, which burned into mine. He held my gaze for several seconds, then simply said, “Thank you.” All I could think to say in the moment was also the words, “Thank you.” I knew something was happening in this moment, that not all was what I thought it was, but also, that I did not fully understand. The man, having been lifted up by something – or someone – besides myself, stabilized himself against the wall. He nodded to me in a way that seemed to imply dismissal, and I stuttered the words, “God’s… God’s peace.”
After I said that, the life in his eyes that had flared was suddenly gone, and again, he was an old drunk man, though stable enough on his feet. There was nothing else for me to do, and I headed back to the office. Yet, as I did, I found myself filled not with pride, but I found my head was down, and all I could think was this: no, I did not have the strength, but the strength is given to us, even as incredibly unworthy as we are. The depths of my unworthiness were certainly revealed in this encounter, especially juxtaposed with the other interactions I had during the course of the day, and how I’d felt about them. At the same time, there was an incredible awareness of God’s grace, of His forgiveness, of His presence, and of the gifts that He gives that are so undeserved. Finally, there was hope in the face of all the struggles that I’ve been having that, even though I often fall so short, God will provide me with all that I need when it is needed, and that more than suffices. All pride was stripped from me, at least in that moment, and I was given a strange sort of peace, perhaps one that surpasses all understanding.
These are the events and my observations of an unusually usual day and my testimony of those events. I can’t – won’t – speculate on the spiritual mechanics, if you will, of what occurred. That said, this is one of those times when I truly feel that God revealed Himself in a very tangible way, that just a bit of the grand tapestry was revealed, and that it seems that a much-needed lesson was taught and learned – an unusual day of His beautiful grace.
Erik Johnson is a vicar (pastoral intern), serving at OSNY – Midtown. He occasionally assists in serving at True Light Lutheran Church – Lower Manhattan and Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church – The Bronx, NY. He also works as a software engineer and lives in Queens, NY with his wonderful wife, Erin.