It’s the first beautiful day in Detroit in months. The perfect day to close a play. The theatre company I work for produces shows at the Boll Family YMCA downtown, and today is our last performance. As is custom for our company, we will tear down the set once the play concludes this afternoon. So, I’m moving my car to the loading dock behind the Y to transport our stuff back to storage.
I’m driving from the parking garage, windows down, Sirius satellite radio dialed to 90’s on 9. The Y is a couple blocks away, so I have time to sing along to Ironic by Alanis Morissette. Then, I notice this man. A white man. Shirtless. He looks young, maybe mid-twenties. Disheveled hair, a beard, slight body hair, all of it brown. He’s wearing sweatpants and he’s dancing. But, it’s not dancing so much as it’s erratic movement. He’s on something perhaps, or perhaps he needs to be on something. He’s homeless, or at least transient. There’s a bag of stuff at his feet, its contents strewn about. The closer I get to him the more I see how dirty he is.
My goodness. Poor man. God, please watch over him. The only thing I do is say a prayer.
I was at one of the March for Our Lives protests a few weeks back, and a particular sign has resounded in my memory: NO MORE THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS – CHANGE. Simply put, saying ‘our thoughts and prayers are with you’ is now a platitude. And in the context of gun violence, enough egregious death and pain has occurred that definitive action is necessary.
And then, I implicate myself. All I do is pass a man in my car who’s in desperate need of rehab, medication, or a home. All I do is offer prayers for him. Echoes of protesters and their boards – NO THOUGHTS! NO PRAYERS! – replay in my mind. And then guilt rears up – what more could I have done?
A couple of hours back I did do something more. After grabbing a coffee at 7-Eleven, I saw a man experiencing homelessness and sleeping on a grassy patch downtown. I headed back to 7-Eleven, bought him some food, and gently placed it near him to find when he woke. I pray for men and women experiencing homelessness all the time. And in that moment, my prayers lead to action.
But, this is not an all-the-time occurrence. There are times when all I do, even all I want to do, is offer prayers.
Earlier today I took a drive downtown to see if I could find the dancing man. I couldn’t. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I found him. Part of me thought of buying some food and sitting with him. Another part of me thought of taking him to a homeless shelter or the hospital. Part of me felt guilty for not doing anything when I saw him the first time. And honestly, another part of me was relieved that I didn’t have to face him at all.
As much as Pope Francis has asked us to smell more like the sheep, sometimes I don’t want to get into the sheep’s pen. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that sometimes I don’t want to be bothered. I walk past a homeless man and I sometimes say to myself, look straight ahead, keep walking. I know if our eyes meet I’ll feel compelled to stop and offer to buy him food or go to the ATM and withdraw cash for him. I’ve done this stuff before, and I’m repeatedly left wondering how I’m actually helping. Sometimes, it’s just inconvenient.
More needs to be accomplished outside of cliché thoughts and prayers. But, what is necessary are thoughts and prayers for strength and courage to never avoid the smell of sheep. Instead, my prayer must lead to an acknowledgment of my gut reaction, and then actually do what it’s telling me to do. That might mean rejecting the luxury of diverting my eyes from someone I clearly see is in real need. That might mean taking a dancing man to the hospital. Thoughts and prayers may not be wanted, but they’re the only place I know to begin.