Are you Jesus?

I didn’t realize it at first, but they happened on the same day.

On Saturday morning I am taking a walk with a friend. We cover our familiar route, knowing the circuit automatically in our steps. We are on the home stretch of the walk, moving down a country lane, all green and leafy. Out of nowhere we hear a voice–somewhat reminiscent to me of the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz–and there is a man who appears to be in his early 20’s. He is speaking to us from a bank of greenery, almost as if he is disembodied head and shoulders amidst the shrubbery. He is pale, unkempt, unshaven, and seemingly naked in a sleeping bag. He tells us that he is still there.

Still there? We had never seen or heard him on our previous walks. Had we been walking by this man for the last week? He then tells us he has hit upon hard times for the last 10 months. Do we have a car he could wash, hedges that need to be trimmed? He holds up a remnant of a plastic bag and says he’s only had a bit of lettuce to eat. He wants something warm to drink, maybe coffee or tea. He doesn’t want money; he wants food.

I ask his name, and he says Chris. We introduce ourselves as well. I ask if he could show me the shirt he will be wearing that day and we will be happy to meet him at a designated place, at a certain hour, in the very small town and bring him food and drink. As Chris rummages around for his shirt, he realizes that he is naked and awkwardly hikes up the sleeping bag to cover part of his chest while he holds a cigarette in the other hand. After some searching, Chris finds his shirt and pulls it out proudly; it is covered in dirt.

We decide to simplify and tell Chris that we will come back in an hour or so with food. The conversation gets muddled; our Chris gets stuck on certain lines of thinking. He repeatedly asks what time it is and asks where we live. That last question, where do you live, makes us both nervous. We then wonder how could he afford the cigarette. Was he telling the truth? Was he a substance abuser? Did he know about the resources for the homeless in town? What kind of choices had he made to end up there? Then did it really matter how he ended up there? All we needed to do was to take one look at him. He was physically and psychologically frail–and he was hungry. In the back of my head, I kept hearing a line from a Joyce Carol Oates novel that said no one gets into heaven unless they feed the poor, that day, my friend and her husband went to heaven because they returned soon after with sustenance for our Chris.

Later in that same day, as I was taking a small post-prandial stroll, I see a band of five seemingly homeless and very inebriated men and women. They are familiar to me; over the weeks, we have shared some conversation in passing. Tonight, they are swaying and falling on one another. I consider crossing the street; loud, drunk people make me nervous, but for some unknown reason I decide to continue on my path.

At that moment, there is an ear-splitting crash, followed by a screech of tires. One of the homeless has just thrown an empty green glass beer bottle at a street-front home, where half of the house is sheathed in scaffolding for some kind of renovation work. The bottle explodes resoundingly against the metal and brick. Simultaneously, a car traveling on the roadway screeches to a halt; the driver thinking he has hit something. The drinkers are now laughing hysterically, and the car driver exchanges a few choice words with them. A woman from the group comes staggering towards me. We all share the same sidewalk. She comes up to me and seriously asks, “Are you Jesus?” My response falls out of my mouth without thinking, “No, not today.” She then responds, “Thanks for being so nice.” I am confused by her reaction. I don’t feel particularly nice. In fact, I am not feeling charitable at all. I didn’t like their needless destructiveness. I didn’t like that they were all so intoxicated. However, I did stand there; I had not crossed the street. I did meet my questioner, one to one, person-to-person.

That Saturday the gods had given me two very noticeable signs. Obviously, they wanted to get my attention and the first time didn’t do the trick. I certainly wasn’t Jesus that day, but maybe tomorrow I can try to do better.

By Adele Ryan McDowell, Ph.D.
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