God on the A Line

I’m visiting Long Beach, CA. I lived here for two years recently, and occasionally had to take the A line from Long Beach to Union Station in LA. Last night, I had to take it again. Previous times taking the A Line, I usually boarded the train early in the morning. The train was fairly crowded at 5:30 am. It was filled with homeless people in the seats with their heads on their knees, and their hoodies pulled over their heads. I saw this half a dozen times on my travels from Long Beach to LA.

Last night, I traveled from Union Station southward just before midnight. People who previously had their heads in their laps in the morning were now boarding the train and taking their seats. They’ll stay on the train until it’s last stop. Late in the night people board and take a nap. First ride in the morning, people board and quickly assume the curled-up position for the hour-long ride. 

A thin middle-aged black man talked and screamed and cackled like a cartoon villain to his reflection in the train window. An older Latino gentleman took a swig from a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. He smiled and chatted briefly with me. A younger woman and the man with paper bag night cap chatted in comfortable familiarity. A young man had a loud conversation on his cell phone with a girl he loved. He desperately begged for her to give him a chance. Bikes started coming aboard with their current owners. They were dropped on the floor or leaned against the exit doors. Something about the careless treatment of the bikes suggested that the current owners might have picked up these bikes for free recently. The bikes appeared to carry no intrinsic value to the riders.

Across the world, the homeless catch a snooze wherever they can. They sit long hours in late night coffee shops to stay warm. They curl up in the inset store-front foyer cubby-holes. They bundle up on sidewalks over the steaming grates to stay warm in freezing northern cities. They once covered up with newspapers on park benches, but the world of online news has chopped the newspaper industry back. Finding a thick Boston Globe or New York Times isn’t as easy as it used to be.

I wondered how many pastors and concerned Christians make time for the population living on the trains. It’s far sexier to create an outreach to surfers, and far more profitable for the church to reach the middle-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods. It’s more acceptable when our new congregants don’t smell so bad that your eyes burn, and there are fewer interruptions when the man in the third row isn’t screaming and cackling at his demons.

The next day, I met a small group of friends at Fat Stogies––a cigar shop in Long Beach. A homeless man walked up to the railing of the outdoor patio and asked if he could do a job to get a bite to eat. Ru, part of a circle of friends at Fat Stogies spoke up. “I got you. Don’t worry about it.” 

Ru walked down the street and bought the guy ribs and corn on the cob. He sat on the curb and waited for Ru to return. I walked out to meet the guy. I sat down on the curb next to him. 

“Hi. I’m Phil. What’s your name?”
“Hi. I’m Daniel.”

We talked. Daniel told me about getting robbed recently. He told me his history, and said he’s had money and good jobs in the past and spoke about places he’s traveled. He complained about the difficulty of his situation, and how dehumanizing it felt to be in such desperate need. He vacillated between questioning why God put him in this situation and saying there must be a lesson in it all. Daniel cried. I told him that I couldn’t completely understand, but that my recent years on the road in Priscilla the Winnebago taught me about the struggle for dignity when you’re getting chased out of neighborhoods and parking lots. He told me about the loneliness, and how it was difficult to look people in the eyes because of the shame. He bemoaned the fact that others didn’t want to look into his eyes either.

The space between the haves and the have-nots is a shame-based gap. The poor feel like their dignity has been stripped and they have nothing to offer. The better-off, at every level, from stable lower class to rich, feel like they don’t know how to help. I would suggest that if we don’t struggle with that shame, then we don’t have a heart, and something is wrong with us. But I would also suggest that the relief from that shame is not discovered in evading the problem. It is discovered by looking it in the face. I sat down with Daniel to hold a conversation and learn his story. Ru bought him dinner. He cried at both acts of kindness. Ru and I both faced our internal desire to be a solution head on. We did it in different ways, but we did it. Daniel profusely thanked Ru for his generosity. He profusely thanked me for sitting and talking to him like he was a regular guy, because “nobody does that with me anymore”.

Perhaps the deepest desperation of poverty is not the actual lack of money, but the invisibility. The have-nots can’t look into the eyes of the haves because they are ashamed. The rich don’t look into the eyes of the poor. I hope the rich are also ashamed because they are not sure how to help, but it could be that some are simply judgmental.

I rode the A line the other night. God was on the A line for the last trip south. And I wondered how many people recognized him when he talked to his own reflection in the train window. (Matthew 25:37-40)

See article from LA Times about the homeless on the Metro system.