I NEVER really gave the homeless much thought until about a year and a half ago when I moved from Bethesda into my new parish on Capitol Hill.
Yes, I was aware of the homeless. Having done some pro bono work as treasurer of the Interfaith Conference of Washington, I had written checks from time to time to the Homeless Coalition. Some Sunday mornings, I asked God to bless them. There were even a few times that I made them a point in a sermon. But in Bethesda I had never really seen one up close -- and I certainly did not know one by name.
All that has changed for me now. Here at my church at 4th and Pennsylvania Southeast, I see them every day. They ask me for change as I walk to Sherrill's for breakfast. I step over one of them to open the church door in the morning. As I work at my desk, I look out on Seward Square, and there they sit on the benches, or lie on the grass. I see them now. Up close.
I even know some of them by name. There's Joe, who felt he had gotten to know me well enough to ask if he could park his Safeway cart full of his treasures on the edge of my driveway. He said it would be for just an hour or two. Four hours later it was still there, and my wife would need to get into the garage in just a few minutes, so I pushed the cart out to the curb.
The next day there were two carts in the driveway. Joe's estate was growing. I pushed them out to the curb. When I came home to lunch, they were in the driveway again. I got the feeling Joe was watching me from somewhere, and my anger at his presuming on my good nature was making his day. He and I had a little game going.
A few later, after I had pushed it all out to the curb one more time, the trash truck made off with all Joe's worldly goods. He came out of hiding. The game was over. He let me have it with both barrels. He did to me what we do to them: gave me a collective identity. He said: "You preachers are all alike. You live in nice houses with closets. You have places to put things."
Then there's Susie. She sleeps in the bank lobby if she's lucky enough to be by the door when a card-carrying customer trips the entrance switch. The bagel store in the same building brings breakfast out to her in the morning. She smells so bad, I assume they don't want her inside.
Susie comes to church now and again. She gets there right at the end of the service, just in time for coffee. She doesn't smell any better on Sunday than she does on the other six days. So someone, usually me, rushes to give her some coffee and some cookies and send her on her way.
There are others whose names I don't know but who have moved into my life. There's the man I stepped over, sleeping under the eave at the church's side door, on my first day at work here. One morning he wasn't there, and I wondered where he had gone. When I didn't see him for about six months, I was concerned that he might have died. When he came back, about a month ago, I felt relieved.
There's the man in the park I talk baseball with. I give him the sports pages as I pass him on my way back from breakfast at Sherrill's. He will talk sports with me, I think, because one day he asked me if I knew Babe Ruth's real name. And I did. I haven't seen him since the Series. Perhaps he's gone south to get a head start on spring training.
When I sit at my kitchen window, eating lunch, I see them heading into the soup kitchen at the Brethren Church, which we help sponsor with a few dollars and a few volunteers. There's the man who carries a beat-up brief case. Is it a prop, or does it really have something in it? There's the man who turns the corner at North Carolina Avenue and 4th Street, and you think he's not one of them because he's walking briskly down the street, and then, just at the last minute, he makes a sharp right turn into the free-food place. Holding on to your dignity for as long as you can -- I think is what it's called.
My problem, now that I know them -- these homeless -- is that I don't know what to do about them. We are here at the church. We talk about our mission to the community. But we really don't know quite what to do, beyond the food services we share in.
We keep our doors locked, which bothers me. We were just about ready to put a fence -- like the famous one at the Farragut West subway entrance -- out back on our parking lot. You see, there's a stairwell there. It's a sheltered area. Not warm on a cold night, but warmer than the street; not dry on a rainy night, but drier than the streets. So it's used-for sleeping. And it was being abused. Sometimes the stench was horrible.
So the trustees got prices on a fence. They also replaced some light bulbs and put up a brighter light on the parkinbg lot, and the use of the stairwell as a bathroom ceased.
The lights seem to have done the trick. Although we were ready to build a fence, because we saw no other way, I don't think any of us felt good about it. I think we were a bit afraid of what the fence might do to us -- the people of God -- as well as what it would do to those looking for same shelter. Remember these lines from Robert Frost's poem, "Mending Wall":
"Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out."
Which brings me to the side of Mitch Synder and his Joshua-like crusade to bring the walls at Farragut West a-tumbling down. Of course subways are not for sleeping. We all know that. But what does a nation with a heart do when there aren't enough bedrooms to go around?
There are a lot of people out there -- like me -- who never saw a homeless person close-up, who never knew one by name. Mitch Snyder makes us look at them. He forces us to see them close-up. And, in the process, he also forces the more sensitive among us to ask ourselves the Mending Wall question.
Thomas Starnes is minister of the Capitol Hill United Methodist Church.