Insignificant barriers

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When Emily and I toured the Frank Lloyd Wright home in Oak Park, IL, a couple weeks ago, I was struck by the quote carved above the fireplace: “Good friend, around these hearth-stones speak no evil word of any creature.”

A few days ago at the small fenced park where I let the dog (Chai) run, she chased a squirrel behind some deep, thick bushes. When I crouched down to check on her, I noticed a piece of foam tucked against the fence behind the bushes, a small blanket spread along one edge of it.

“Someone’s been sleeping there,” I told Em.

Today I met the someone.

The man on the bench on the sunny side of the park wore a ball cap, a hooded sweatshirt with the hood pulled up, a big stadium jacket, insulated work pants, and boots.

A big bottle of liquor, almost a jug, sat at his feet.

I entered the park on the opposite side, tied Chai’s leash to a bench there, sat down, and started to work. I assumed the man would soon leave, and I could let Chai run free.

He didn’t leave, and something tickled the back of my brain.

What if Jesus had entered the park with me?

Because, after all, didn’t he?

Come with me, be in me?

Suddenly sitting there, across the park, back turned to this person, waiting for him to leave—it didn’t feel so right, didn’t feel like Jesus’s way.

I shoved my laptop in my bag, stood up, and turned in the man’s direction. He waved. I waved back and walked the circular path toward his side of the park.

I stopped next to his bench.

“I don’t bite,” he said, his voice gravelled but warm.

I smiled. “She doesn’t either,” I said, gesturing at Chai, and sat down.

We shook hands, exchanged names—John, Jen—and talked.

Mostly, he did. Felt like he needed a listening ear.

His eyes were heavy lidded and watery. He wiped them often on his sleeve. His nails curved over clubbed fingertips, reminding me of my Pappaw, whose hands looked the same. When I was a kid, my mom told me it was from years of smoking. I looked it up later. In my Pappaw’s case, she was right: the smoking led to the lung disease, which led to the clubbed fingertips.

John “confessed” first—not with any sense of guilt, but more to get it out of the way, probably to stall any questions from me. Maybe he noticed my cross. Maybe he’d heard the questions a hundred times.

It was cheap beer in the bottle, no apologies. He likes beer.

It’s his bed in the bushes; new tenants bought the place where he was staying, so he’s in between “permanent” housing. He should be sleeping on foam for only a week. He’s just praying the rain holds off.

He does odd jobs, cleans a little, wears a mascot suit for a local business (“That’s me behind the mask,” he laughs. “They started me at $9 an hour; now I’m up to $14).

He hangs out at different places, is “like the furniture” at a local bar.

He showed me his ring of souvenirs, given to him by different friends who’ve travelled, a bracelet from a friend from Africa, his phone, his latest phone bill. Each item led to a story.

And then, unprompted, he went back, launching into tales from childhood, growing up in Canada, in French Canada.

He spoke some French for me, talked about learning English because, “Well, you just had to.”

He played baseball growing up.

One baseball buddy was Italian. He remembered eating at his house once. “So much food! We sat there for four hours! I told them they’d have to roll me away in a wheelbarrow. But I couldn’t refuse the food. Those Italians, they’re crazy about food! You can’t offend their mama’s cooking!”
I laughed. “I know. I’m half Italian. Maiden name is Del Vecchio.”

He nodded. “That’s Italian.”

He got off on a tangent then, and it was time for me to go, so I waited for a break and told him I’d enjoyed sitting and talking with him. “You’ll probably see me around,” he said.

I probably will.

When I thought about this later, I wondered at the ease of it, at the simplicity of sharing a park bench. What almost kept me from that?

Why would I let anything keep me from that?

Oh, Jesus, you wiped away the biggest boundary ever when you put on flesh. With that chasm crossed, how silly the gates we humans erect of status and race and gender and education must seem!

Help me.

Help me to see them as insignificant as well.

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4 thoughts on “Insignificant barriers

  1. Jen, thank you for this challenging post. I mostly think people don’t want to be bothered. This reminds me that may not be the case at all. Obviously, this gentleman needed someone to listen. I think your interactions reminded him that he is significant – at least, that’s my hope. I’m proud of you for heeding the Holy Spirit’s nudge. Love you!

  2. Jen,
    When I read your posts, I always feel like I get to tread on holy ground for a few minutes. Your words touch a deep place and are challenging and life affirming. I hope we can meet for tea once I get back to the Chicago area. I would love to see Em again also. What a talent that girl has with her photography.
    Judy O

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