A Picnic with Frank and Chuck

It looked like the Matterhorn; a monstrous hill, steep and climbing that led to the Promised Land, or in this case the young couples picnic.  I had two obstacles-a fractured foot and no stroller for my twenty pound baby.  But, I was determined to partake of the festivities and so I began the difficult climb.

My son and I joked along the way as I huffed and puffed and tried not to swear in front of the kids ( In my defense, I do work with a bunch of sailors engineers, but usually I just think the bad words and try not to articulate them)

Finally, we crested the summit and there was the resplendent picnic in site! The smell of burgers tickled my nostrils, meaty and smoky.  Baked beans, brownies, cookies, and rice crispy treats lined the red checkered table anchored by a large pitcher of lemonade.  It was a bountiful feast indeed.

My family settled in and tucked into the food, then lazily lounged on the grass.  Soon the games ensued-bocce ball and Frisbees took flight, and laughter reverberated throughout the park.  Some of the women wandered over to watch a wedding and the tinkle of Claire De Lune could be heard in the distance. The music made me wistful and nostalgic. It was one of those Sound of Music scenarios where everything is as it should be and I was completely content.

I glanced over at the folks occupying the next picnic table over and smiled and waved hello.  There were two men sitting side by side with a bottle covered with a brown paper bag.  I could see their eyes following the baby and me as we frolicked in the grass.  From my vantage point, they looked a little worse for the wear and so I ambled on over, now curious, and stuck out my hand in greeting, “Hello. I’m Sam and this is little Kolby.”

The more articulate of the two men spoke for them both, “I’m Frank and this is Chuck,” he muttered. “Nice to meet you, m’am. We ain’t trying to bug you folks.”

“Of  coarse you’re not.” I said.  “In fact why don’t you join us?”

“Nah, we’ll stay here and watch.” Frank said.  Chuck here just got out of the hospital,”

My husband walked up just as Frank mentioned the hospital, “I’m so sorry. What happened to him?”

“Oh, Chuck here, he’s got prostate cancer,” Frank shared.

Chuck nodded and slurred some of the words I had been thinking about on my tortuous walk up the hill.  Both the men were clearly inebriated.  Frank shushed him, “Not in front of the lady!”

I smiled and climbed into the wooden picnic table to join them.  Not too long ago, I probably would have avoided their eyes. Honestly, I don’t even know if I would have seen them.  It was just so much easier to ignore poverty, as if their destitute state might be contagious. 

I propped the baby up on the table and made small talk.  I asked some questions and then Frank explained how he ended up homeless and how they survived. I tried not to stare at the dirt under their nails

My mind was racing as I battled a bombardment of thoughts.  I wanted to rescue, to fix them, and to find some tangible solution for their condition. Then all at once, I sensed the Lord prompting me to simply be with them.  To look them in the eye and give them the respect and attention they deeply craved and sorely missed.

And so this time I really listened.  And I heard with my heart as much as my ears.  I noticed Frank had a certain dignity about him, almost a purity of sorts. 

I found out he enjoyed living in the park.  He experienced breathtaking ocean views every day, survived on the excess of party-goers like myself and scrounged up enough money from recycling to buy alcohol. 

Frank had made his decision to live counter culturally and bristled at the thought of conventional life. In some ways he embodied the simple abundance I crave and experienced contentment in ways I couldn’t begin to grasp.

And then there was Chuck.  Chuck was dying.  The alcohol in his hand was merely numbing the physical and emotional pain of cancer ravaging his body.

Frank was on a roll now that he knew he had an audience. “I don’t steal or accept donations.  We recycle and we get by with our own two hands. We are survivors and we choose this life, right Chuck?”

Chuck looked confused but smiled.  “I got Frank,” he said. “Frank takes care of me.”

I nodded my head yes, though my heart broke and I tried not to cry.  They wouldn’t take my offerings of food, even though I knew once we left they would raid the trashcan.  I gathered up all our water bottles and took them over, dumping out peoples drinks from the party along the way, wasting more in my effort to please.

It was hard for me to leave. But when I looked over, they were laughing and waving goodbye to the baby, making silly faces, and counting their bottles.

Much of what I am learning about poverty has less to do with the poor and more about my own misunderstandings.  It’s my paradigm needing the radical shift.  I get in the way of God every time I think I have something profound to offer to those in need. When I take myself out of the parent role and recognize my own spiritual poverty I can see the poor as a reflection of myself, as a fellow sojourner navigating the difficult road of humanity.

And so, for a brief moment, I experienced a little bit of God’s mercy.  I had been included in Frank and Chuck’s unconventional life and it felt like a gift.  I erroneously thought I was supposed to invite them into my life, to the church party, but God had another plan.  He wanted me to join their party.

It had been a long time since they had held the warm hands of a baby, sat with a lady and joked with a family.  And I, on the other hand, had looked desperation in the eye, battled my fear and made some new friends.  It was just normal stuff, really, but extraordinary on this day.

The walk down the hill was easier.  I didn’t even think about the pain in my broken foot. My son asked me about the homeless guys and I told him the story.

“Mom, that’s cool,” Kyle said.

“Yeah, they were cool,” I said. “It was a good day for a picnic, a good day indeed.”

Picture by: Maggie

Comments

  1. Great story, Sam. I have been so blessed getting to do life with a group of homeless people who attend my church. It has really opened my eyes, and has been a huge blessing to me and to my friends, both the homeless and those with homes. Instead of seeing them as scary people on a street corner, I now see them as my friends. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Thanks Kendra,
    I would love to see something like that for Mariners MV. I know Jud Wilhite’s church in Vegas has a great homeless ministry. It’s simply a chance for people to take a shower, get some clean clothes and go to church.
    Maybe something we all need!
    Sam

  3. "Bookish B" says:

    You are so right, Sam!

    We really do not serve the poor so long as we see ourselves as somehow superior to the poor. In a culture given over to the “idolatry of expertise” most of us want to call in the experts to do an important job (feeding / clothing / housing the poor), but not the most important job: asserting their fundamental dignity before humanity and before God.

    Decrying poverty certainly has some nobility to it (perhaps why so many give it lip service). But, as we are busy distributing “a fish” to those who feel themselves unworthy, we forget that until we have helped to rebuild their personal dignity, they will never return to “learning to fish,” or “fishing for themselves.”

    Once again, Sam, you have lit the way ahead with your narrative insights and your sunny disposition. Thank you so much, Sam!

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