The Unexpected: Surprised by Joy
September 6, 2016
An unexpected gift came to my doorstep this week. Unexpected. And, actually, it wasn’t delivered to the mail box or, like an Amazon package, to my doorstep. Rather it came when I was away from home; discovered while traveling in California. Elaine and I were in Sacramento.
Early morning, out on my daily constitutional (the goal is to walk five miles a day), I was stepping along a stretch that looked promising. It was a grassy and green stretch. On one side was the I-5 interstate that runs the length of California. Sounds of rushing traffic — good folks no doubt on their way to work in the city — perhaps in state government. On the other side of the green way was a row of tall evergreen trees. Beyond them an empty field. The stretch, about four football fields long, ran between the Hilton and Marriott hotels. No paths, little appearance of use, just the promise of a good place to walk alone, I thought.
About half way between the Hilton and Marriott, tucked away under the trees, sunlight streamed like a silver web on the grass. It gyrated across my path. The light beckoned me come. I turned toward the trees and just a few steps away, hidden in underbrush, was a small encampment. Clearly someone’s abode — plastic bags, a water jug and a couple of bedrolls — these were obvious. Only the trees for cover. I called, “hello,” then thought it foolish. They likely wouldn’t welcome a visitor. With no response, I looked more closely. There were a couple of books including an old Bible and what, at first, appeared to be trash — four opened and empty tin cans. Looking more closely, in a Pork and Beans empty “safe,” was a rosary and 47 cents. Feeling guilty, embarrassed, about disturbing this hermitage, I quickly moved away.
Who lived here? For how long? Was this a “permanent” residence for a couple of homeless folks? The irony of this camp between two upscale hotels did not escape me. I walked on pondering questions about our society and wondering about these residents on the edge of survival tucked away between the comfortable respite of travelers like me. How had these homeless folks arrived at this situation? Bad luck? Addiction? Mental illness? How had our nation come to this point of ignoring the poor among us? Our bad luck? Our ideological addictions? Our mental illness?
A rosary and forty-seven cents – left in a pork and beans tin can. Returning along the path, I couldn’t help it. I returned. Looking around carefully to make certain I would not intrude. Still with no one “home,” I fished some cash from my wallet and added it to the modest stash in the pork and beans can.
I left quickly, and then that first strand of light fell again across the path way. I looked back to see an old broken mirror hinging from twine on a tree in the encampment that was reflecting the light. I stopped and prayed, praying as earnestly as I have in years. Yes, I prayed for these homeless folks. Yes, I prayed for our nation and world. More, I prayed for myself. My intrusion into this purgatory (or was it a haven?), this place of meager shelter, hidden away in our brutal and too often numbing world was illuminating. So many live on the edge. It was a heartbreaking reminder of the work yet to do. How many homeless in the U.S.? Eleven million? Or, as some say, thirty million?
I was also aware that my intervention might not be of value. Should I call a church or social workers? NO! Knowing all too well our systems of “helping,” I didn’t want to further endanger those who sought this place as sanctuary. Even though I had left a little money behind, I was not a hero. Nor were my motives heroic. There is too much in our society that encourages us to believe that we are the heroes and others are the victims. Our world is not as much of an either/or calculation as so many of our ideologies or theologies all too often communicate.
I wondered if this was a couple and if they had a child? Might that child be undocumented? Might that child be a refugee? A refugee like that child Jesus so long ago? Might it be a Joaquin, Jamal, Maria or Alice?
Returning to the hotel parking lot, there was another glimmer of light. Down, and there on the asphalt, was a lost key. My first thought was to carry it back to the camp. Leave it there with the rosary in the can. Then I realized the key might be for me. I was to remember — that because God loved me so, I was to live in responsible ways, always remembering those tucked away, out of sight, living on the margins. I was to live aware that because God loved those camped under the evergreen trees, I dare not stop speaking or working on the behalf of all. Now — here is the real surprise for me. In that moment there was JOY. The joy of remembering my faith, of knowing my calling. The JOY of having another key to my identity. Lost and found — Joy. Like an empty can, I had been provided so much by so many. I thought of those who had taught me so much — teachers, parents, friends, the homeless I had known over the years who “took me in.” I checked with the hotel desk and no one reported losing a key, so I dropped it in my pocket as a reminder.
Yes, I was so privileged. I had work to do. In a world where our political candidates seem determined to forget the homeless, in a world where our refugees are a small fraction of the refugees all across the planet, there is work to do.
I recalled C. S. Lewis who wrote of these moments: ” I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
― C.S. Lewis,
I brought the key home with me.