Finding Christ in a Half Smoked Cigarette

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The Statue of the Homeless Jesus was first sculpted by Timothy Schmalz and installed at Regis College in Toronto. Similar statues have now been placed around the world.

On a Tuesday night in downtown Windsor, about a dozen people gather outside the old Central United Church – a building that has been there since 1904.  Chairs are out, some bring their walkers, and a boy around eight or nine eagerly greets all the “congregants” handing them out water bottles and a snack bag comprising of a banana, granola bar, and a pack of Bear Paws.  The church that runs this outreach is called “Lifeline” and they have been in the central core neighbourhood for the past five years or so.  

I arrive right at 6:30pm, and when I get there, I do not see any action – I only notice two visibly homeless men on the church steps smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.  I go up to them and dare to ask, “Is there anything happening here tonight?”  They look puzzled, unsure of what I am referring to.  One of them, the man who has been drinking a four pack of beer looks at me, “Whatcha mean darlin?”  “Like a meeting or something…” I query.  The man takes a stab at what he thinks I’m referring to, “You mean like AA?”  “Not quite” I counter, “something like a church service.”  They both shrug signifying they really do not know or care what I am looking for.  Finally, the other man who appears a bit more sober, tries his hand at sweet talking me.  “Beautiful lady,” he says not impolitely.  “I  love your shirt.  I love the roses on it.  Life is full of beauty.”  And I have to marvel in awe at how right he is.  A homeless man recounting gratitude in an age when most of us want more.  He suggests that the church service might be happening on the other side of the building, but admits he doesn’t know for sure.  I thank him for his directions and as I walk over to the other side I hear him yell out, “You’re so beautiful!”  

It is 6:35pm and finally I notice one of the gentlemen from the church carrying some chairs out, I offer to help him.  We set them up and then I notice another group of people are setting up the snack table.  We all settle in.  6:40pm.  The pastor strums a few songs on his guitar – some sacred, some secular, but all careful chosen for this occasion.

About six homeless folx and a few people from the church carefully watch the pastor with rapt attention.  A few more briefly stop to listen, grab a bag of goodies, and then head out on their way.  After a few songs, the pastor stops playing and puts down his guitar ready to offer a reflection.  Not a sermon, just a quick word of encouragement.  He is just getting into his talk about how Jesus accepts and loves everyone, when a homeless man who I will call “Barney” stops the pastor and very animatedly has his own conversation.  This is the same man I met earlier who was drinking the four pack.  The pastor gracious indulges him, before Barney says he will only leave once a song from the East Coast is played.  The pastor obliges him a bit later on.  For now, Barney’s attention has shifted to the goodie table where I see him talking to the others and trying to sneak a drink of the hand sanitizer.  

When the pastor is done sharing his message, Barney is back giving the pastor a litany of song requests.  The pastor is gracious, forming and building a relationship, not telling Barney to be quiet, but rather just honouring his presence as a beloved child of God.

Right as the service is nearing its end, a homeless man barges up to the front of the steps.  He has not been there at all throughout the service, but suddenly he finds a pause and he wants to do a good deed.  He hands the pastor a cigarette, which the pastor declines, but in that moment I see his gentle spirit of hospitality.  This homeless man does not take any of the snacks he was offered, he only wanted to help someone else.

I work in the homeless sector myself and sometimes it can be easy to imagine the reasons why someone is homeless.  Judgement sometimes triumphs over mercy rather than the other way around.  Yet, it was on this day, on the stairs outside an old imposing church, with the odor of body sweat and stale beer, that I truly saw God.  It was a sacred moment where those who occupied spaces of the high and low, those caught in the cycle of addiction and poverty and those willing to give back, all found themselves co-mingled together in God’s embrace.  I have attended many different churches and denominations over the years.  When I was in seminary, I was often required to visit churches which seemed unfamiliar and foreign.  I went to inner-city and rural churches.  I visited the Charismatics and the Catholics, the Pentecostals and the Presbyterians, the Apostolics and the Anglicans and I have always found a home.  Yet, it was on this day that church began to have different meaning to me.  It was on this day that I saw that church is not simply about what we preach, but about what we practice, and that sometimes Christ is found in a half smoked cigarette.  Sometimes devotion pours out from a drunken man, and sometimes trust is formed from the basis of trauma.  

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