"You again? What do you want?!"
"Hank*, someone called because they were worried about you."
"Worried about what? I was asleep and doing fine until you came along."
"They might have called to make sure you were alive."
"I'm alive and now I'm awake. Don't you have anything better to do?"
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"Yes we do. Have a good morning Hank."
The officer explained that Hank's family was very supportive: out-of-state treatment, housing and unconditional love. Relatives may have wanted him off the street but Hank was clear about what he wanted: self-medication, sleeping on sidewalks, foraging. His choices allowed him to remember officers' faces and vice versa. Tommy* backed away from Hank's pile of blankets to take the next 911 call.
Hank was caustic in ushering us out of his open-air bedroom, but his poetic tone lodged in my imagination. A sing-song lilt powered his monologue. As we rode, I asked questions about Hank and Tommy readily shared what he knew. A few hours later, Hank was holding court, shirtless and barefoot, at a traffic light.
No sign or mendicant's stance accompanied his lecture. The strange brew of Tommy's knowledge, Hank's posture and our limited time between 911 calls amplified the Holy Spirit's, "Look and listen." We parked so Tommy could make sure Hank was not going to jump into traffic. I tried - without sounding like someone who believes he hears from God...when no one else in the truck seems to hear what God is saying - to say, "Tommy, I think I hear God telling me to get out, walk over to Hank and listen to his meandering, disjointed diatribe."
Exiting, walking across the parking lot and crouching in the grass felt ridiculous. There was no plan but to obey a whispered "look and listen." How often do we approach someone standing at an intersection without looking? If we look, maybe we'll read the heartbreak scrawled on cardboard. If we listen to the heartbreak, we may be moved to alter plans and deviations can feel foolish. Budgets, plans and schedules seem smarter than compassionately listening and looking. Where are the coins and bills dropped in an outstretched hand really going? Sometimes it's easier to look away.
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Hank looked at me.
"Can you repeat that last part? The traffic is loud and I missed it."
He sat up, exhaled - as geniuses exhale when enduring knaves - and asked, "What did you miss?"
"The part about radio waves and the red house."
His shoulders shrugged in a nonverbal, "You really are listening, aren't you?" He straightened his spine, a gesture saying, "finally...someone who really gets it." On queue, he repeated the previous word picture before pivoting to the next mind-bending image. Traffic continued to fly by and Tommy kept doing what he was supposed to be doing. For a little while, Hank had someone genuinely listening to his emphatic utterances. He was grateful, and so was I, for the unbroken minutes of our full and mutual attention.
He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the LORD’s coming! Clear the road for him!’” ~ Mark 1:3
By the time we left for the next call, Hank had more bottles of water and bags of food than he could finish. He had cash for which he never asked. Drivers stopped, looked, listened and gave without solicitation. They gave compassionately at a red light while the chaplaincy gave the gift of undivided attention.
Hank felt heard because a team of prayer and financial partners sent a listener to ride with Tommy.
On patrol, Tommy and I spoke more about Hank, his family and the urban wilderness he calls home. Challenges remain. Tommy began to open up about some of his family's trials and triumphs. Later in the shift, when prayer was offered, he said yes. We bowed our heads together, thanked the Lord for safety on the shift and lifted our wives and children in prayer.
Together we were able to use the Gospel to serve human populations at the intersection of faith and public health.
*Name changed to maintain anonymity