by Erika Marksbury
An older man, let’s call him Abraham, has befriended my son, Oscar. Abraham attends the same church we do. I’m the pastor, so there’s always stuff to do afterwards, and my kids are left to fend for themselves, throwing paper airplanes off the balcony, seeing if they can scrounge up more cookies, while I finish conversations, turn off lights, lock doors. But Oscar has taken to reading lately, so he doesn’t mind staying late – he curls up in a big cushy chair with his book and doesn’t even notice the time passing.
Abraham also stays at church until it’s time to lock up for the day. He sits in the other big cushy chair. There are two together, and he’d claimed his first, when Oscar decided to occupy the other one. Abraham is kind, maybe a little gruff. He looked up when Oscar first came to sit by him, didn’t say much, just returned to his own book. After a few weeks of this – the older man and the young one, side by side, engrossed in their separate fictions, Abraham leaned over and told Oscar, “You know, reading will rot your brain.”
Oscar stared at him, confused, until Abraham couldn’t keep a straight face anymore. Now they’re the best of friends. Abraham tells a variation on that same joke every week: “Hey, brain-rot buddy.” “Be careful. Your brain is going to mush, all that reading.” “I’m going to get us hats made. We’ll be the ‘brain-rot club.’”
He’s also started bringing books for Oscar. Ones he’s picked up at a garage sale for a nickel, or found on a give-away shelf. Ones he thinks a boy about Oscar’s age should read. A few by Jack London. A science and history trivia book. A book of riddles. Oscar especially likes the book of riddles. They’re still mostly silent when they sit side-by-side, but every once in a while, reading that book, Oscar will laugh out loud, and Abraham will take a break from his own story, mark his page to listen to the riddle that’s delighted Oscar so.
A few months into this friendship, my boys and I attended a dinner and program at another local church. The evening was called “Piecing Community Together” and it brought together people experiencing homelessness with others who have homes, on an equal footing. Everyone shared the free meal. Everyone played games together around their tables. Everyone enjoyed the concert. We had a great time.
I told my husband about it later, praising that model. I said, “It was really nice not to be divided into those categories, you know, some people serving, other people being served. We were just all together and it felt like we made better connections that way.” My husband asked, “Who was there?” And I listed off the names of the people we knew from hosting the Community Winter Shelter, or other ways we’ve engaged with the homeless around town: Liza, Carl, Keith, Rita, Abraham… Oscar was listening.
“Abraham is homeless?” he interrupted.
I’d never realized, until that moment, that he wouldn’t have known. Abraham comes to church early and sits in the balcony, away from most of the congregation. He stays until we lock up, because it’s nice to be indoors for a while. He carries a big backpack to haul around most of his belongings. I first met him when he came in for the overnight shelter that the church opens up when the temperature drops dangerously low.
Oscar took a while to process this new information. He wants to know more of Abraham’s story. The older man shares pieces of it, once in a while, but not enough for us to know why he’s without shelter, or where he goes when he goes away. I think that’s ok. I think, actually, he’s offered us a great gift by opening up as much as he has.
And I’m really grateful for the order this all unfolded in – that Oscar knew Abraham first as a reading friend, then as a thoughtful gift-giver, then as someone to share a joke with, then as a man experiencing homelessness. If the order had been reversed, I don’t know that the same relationship would be developing between them. Something about status, about category or label, tends to stop us, to keep us apart, maybe even more insistently than how shared passions can bring us together.
I know it’s not cute, that my kid has a homeless friend. I know that Abraham’s situation is complex and that he has real, tangible and not-so-tangible needs. But I also know that one of those needs is community.
It’s all made me wonder: what comes first? What do we want to know about each other, really? How does our initial knowing of some information – the status, the category – close us off to learning something more, something other and deeper? What could develop between us if we started somewhere else?
I hope to learn some of the answers by hanging out with my kid and his generous, funny new friend.