Last night, I was on a street corner in NW, checking the bus times on my phone. It was later than usual and I was in a hurry to find the nearest bus home.
A man in a burly overcoat approached me. It isn’t that cold out, I thought, as he walked up. In his hand was a little bunch of posies, like the ones my little brothers bring my mom in April. Those are usually short stemmed, with bits of grass and weeds crumpled in the fistful. This, however, was carefully arranged, with little bits of this and that fixed to look just right.
“I’d like you to have these,” he said to me, holding up the flowers.
I glanced down the street for my bus, attempting to convey the DC vibe of I’m-busy-don’t-harass-me (practiced to avoid NGO volunteers asking you to sign their petitions or donate your pocket change). “Oh!” I said. “But I don’t have anywhere I could put them.”
“Put them in water.” He was grinning now. “Do you know what these are? These are mums, this is evergreen, this is boxwood, and these are hydrangeas.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond (and I knew he wasn’t naming them correctly). “They’re lovely! But I don’t have anywhere to put them right now.”
“They’re for you. I want you to have them.” He put them in my hand, and I couldn’t refuse. “But,” he said, “I’m homeless, and I’m hoping I can find a dollar. Can you help me?”
I was undone. I only had a couple of pennies in my change purse, after stopping at the office vending machine for a snack in the afternoon. The night before I had given my only cash to my husband for bus fare, and I just don’t keep cash on me habitually.
“Oh my gosh,” I said, “I wish! I don’t have any cash on me or I would. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay!” he said.
“I can’t take these,” I said. “You should give them to someone else.”
“No,” he said, and he stuck his hands in his coat pockets and started to cross the street. “I want you to have them.”
This encounter left me stunned. DC has a lot of homeless people, and the juxtaposition of this homeless man meeting me on the same street corner where I had seen Jill Biden two weeks ago was unnerving. I don’t really know how I should be relating to them, and I don’t have much to offer. My expensive-looking phone came to me as a good deal at little cost, and I try to look snazzy like all the other Dupont Circle commuters, but I’m just faking it.
We don’t have a home of our own to open up, and I feel nervous about interacting with these people (like offering to buy them lunch instead of giving them change) because of your standard mom lecture about women traveling alone and predators and rape and pickpockets. Some of this is common sense, some of this is bullshit, and most of it is just me being a Christian who hasn’t been outside the bubble of the middle class church world enough. I felt sick and ashamed and convicted.
And then I remember, with some irony, a discussion with a friend about the phrase “become like gods” in the book of John, and what it actually means in terms of our orthopraxy. My guilt at receiving this bit of beauty without being able to give anything in return – is this not a microcosm for grace? I, who am to be as Christ in the world, got given something beautiful I didn’t deserve and didn’t buy. And it upset me deeply.