This Must Be Him

Recently I reached out to a friend of mine who I met while working for My Brother’s Keeper, as I was pursuing opportunities in the social justice/community organizing field. My friend- a wonderful, spirited man named Angel Cosme- was then the associate organizer for a faith-based, grassroots organizing group named Brockton Interfaith Community (BIC), based in Brockton, MA. BIC’s mission was to promote harmony between people of all walks of faith as they joined together to build a better, safer, equality and harmony-based city. It was a wonderful group and part of a larger national community organizing group named PICO. When I met Angel, he struck me as genuine, passionate, humble, and driven, and I knew he was born to do this kind of work.

A few months after I met him and had done some work with BIC, Angel left the organization to pursue his dream of teaching, landing a job in the special education department with Brockton’s public high school, one of the biggest on the East Coast. However, after only one year there, he was led to believe he would be let go, as part of the city’s massive budget cuts that severely affected the public school system. After making peace with the school’s decision, he decided to run for city council, specifically focusing his campaign on immigrants’ rights, public education reform, and generally being a man of the people, especially representing and advocating for the marginalized and most neglected.  When I reached out to him via text the other night, it was a dual purposed-message. First and foremost, I wanted him to know how happy I was with what he was doing, and that I genuinely supported his campaign effort and would be happy to help him in any capacity possible. Though to that point, I admit I had a selfish reason for reaching out as well. I have now been between jobs for nearly two months, and while I am pursuing good leads, getting interviews and requests for them and the like, as a person I am one to always look for an angle to better position myself, whether that be financially, academically, or the like. So I thought that while pursuing Communications, Development and PR jobs, it would be great to get some bonafide experience to that end, and doing so for a friend who I believe can make a difference in this world would be a great place to start. I was thrilled and humbled when he said how he would love to make me a part of his campaign team. I promised to use my passions and skillsets in any way possible for the good of his endeavors.

He informed me that he would be meeting with his team the following morning. Although I planned on attending the meeting, the details and organization of which were a bit haphazard, and as a result the meeting got delayed, and I wasn’t able to go. I was frustrated at this, and had driven into Brockton that morning “ready and raring to go” for a cause I believed in. I was soon to learn, though, that the morning was not a total waste. That realization only came to me today, after truly seeing God at work, and feeling His presence with me.

As I was leaving Brockton yesterday, ticked off and put-out, I buried my head in my phone, drafting a text to vent to my mom, and drove through the city, finishing my drafted message at every stop light. As I drove through one neighborhood, I saw the familiar face of a frequent at my former workplace, Bobby. Bobby is a “street person”, as I believe is the best term for him on a surface level; he’s not quite homeless, not quite with a home, not quite completely unemployed, but doesn’t have a steady source of work or income. He doesn’t necessarily “panhandle” but he does “hustle”, making his daily rounds through Brockton, going from one acquaintance’s house to the next, seeing if they need their grass cut, leaves raked, walkway swept and the like. Then he’ll go to a church or two, seeing if any of the clergy will offer him money for the bus, or food. But he always rounds off his daily trip with stopping at My Brother’s Keeper, where no matter what, he knows he will walk away with something tangible in his hands. I can’t tell Bobby’s full story here, and even what I can tell is half-fact and half-fiction, as Bobby, even leaving his “hustler” mentality aside (talk about a guy who knows how to work every angle!), his mental health is also not the greatest, and he suffers from memory loss and delusions. What I do know about Bobby is that he did not have a great childhood and there is a strong likelihood that he served in the Vietnam war. I also know that he first met the co-founders of MBK twenty years ago, and after their genuinely Christian treatment of him, even after he repeatedly stole off of them and crossed many boundaries, he keeps coming back, and the staff at MBK always welcome him with open arms. I genuinely enjoyed my time conversing with Bobby, offering prayers for him and praying with him, and helping him in what ways that I could. Oftentimes I knew that just taking a few moments out of my day to sit and converse with him was most likely more aid than he had been offered in weeks, and I felt that if Jesus met Bobby (which in a way He already has), that He would take a ministerial, loving approach with him. I used Christ as my model for interacting with Bobby, and while I wasn’t always as patient with him or generous towards him as I would have liked, I do hope he knows at the end of the day that there are good people in the world who aren’t going to ignore him or act like he’s crazy, and that through this reality, he will know that there is a God, who despite his tough life circumstances, does in fact love him very much.

This same man was in a dream of mine just a night before I went to Brockton in my failed attempt to meet up with Angel and his campaign team. In the dream, Bobby was showing me a wound on his hand that I was offering to clean up, and he made some joke that had me and an unidentifiable coworker laughing hysterically, as Bobby chuckled his signature chuckle and smiled widely as he so often did when he came to MBK. And this same man, my friend Bobby whom I enjoyed conversing with so much, I saw walking down the street in his usual slanted gait, his back hunched over a bit, holding a sweatshirt in his hand and his signature Shaw’s plastic shopping bag in the other, as I was wrapped up in my anger, frustration, and general ego as I was making my way out of the city. I saw him on the sidewalk, knew it was him, then did something I am sad to admit that I did; I averted my eyes, ducked my head, even leaned down a bit in my seat, and punched the gas just as the light was turning green. I simply didn’t want to be seen by him. I was upset by this fact, disappointed with myself, even thinking to myself that I must have been some sort of fraud in the faith, saying I seek to be Christ-like in all that I do, yet giving this “least of these” brother of mine the cold shoulder. It was a low point, but I knew then and there I should not dwell on it, should forgive myself as God would and already had, and let it go. And as fate would have it, God already had a second chance for me in mind.

Today I was planning on heading to my mom’s for a full day and night together. I regret the fact that I haven’t seen much of her more over the past several years- since her and my dad got divorced- but life often proves to be an obstacle, even to seeing your mom, in more ways than one. Setting out this morning on “day one” of trying to change that narrative and see her much more frequently moving forward, I was excited, I was calm, and the weather was absolutely perfect. I woke up in a happy mindset, excited to spend time with her. I left my house in the late morning and meandered through side streets from my town to the neighboring town of Stoughton on my way to highway. As I was getting closer to Route 24, on one of the largest streets in Stoughton, I was driving past the large cemetery that spans about a city block’s length of the road when I saw him. It wasn’t Bobby, but it was certainly a street person, a gruff, older looking man in a blue and black, weather-beaten flannel shirt, dark brown pants, and with a blue duffel bag with various sizes of walking sticks stacked on top of it. I saw him initially as I passed by, and began offering a prayer to God on his behalf. But when I peaked in my side-view mirror and saw him once more, head hanging down, I literally heard part of Matthew 25 ring through my head; “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me…” I promptly turned around in the CVS parking lot to my right and found a place to park in one of the entrances to the cemetery. I offered a prayer to God for a peaceful and fruitful encounter, took a deep breath, and walked towards him.

“Hey brother”, I said. “Mind if I sit with you?” I made my way over to the granite bench he was on and sat next to him, giving him a light pat on his shoulder.

“What’s your name? I’m Andrew.” I extended my hand to shake his and he raised his right hand in the air, and murmured a greeting without shaking mine.

“Have you had anything to drink today? Water?”

“Ya I’ve got some waters in there, thanks.”

“No problem, thank God the weather is nicer today huh? Nice to see some sunshine.”

“Yeah, way better than the rain!”

We chuckled and commented how drastically variable New England weather is.

“Where ya heading today?”

“Well, I came over from that town over there this mornin’. What’s that town? Canton I think.”

“No way! Yeah, Canton is my hometown. Not a bad place. Where you going from here?”

“Well, I made it to here, so that’s pretty good for right now.”

He had a brightness to his eyes, which stood in contrast to his weathered, tanned face. He had brown hair that was unkempt but not unclean, with some parts straight and some parts in small curls. He glanced at me from time to time as we chatted, and smirked occasionally. I didn’t know what his story was- didn’t ask- but whatever he was dealing with, there was a serenity to him. He spoke softly and genuinely and didn’t seem to be too troubled by the sun, the passersby, the heat radiating off the pavement. He simply was, and I was there with him, and for a few moments, it was as if the rest of the world and its troubles and ways didn’t matter. It was a sacred space and sacred encounter that I was blessed to have.

Pope Francis, from the outset of his pontificacy, has talked about sacred encounters. In an article featured on National Catholic Reporter about his “culture of encounter”, they define this term as “The capacity to encounter is about the Christian’s stance towards the world and especially towards other persons, the ability, achieved through grace, to stand towards the world as Christ stood towards the world.” (https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic/pope-francis-encounter)

To stand towards the world as Christ stood towards the world. In my opinion, there could be no better way than to sum up what being a disciple of Christ should look like, and how one should act towards the world at large. To do so can be challenging, it can be frightening, it can push us outside of our comfort zones and make us vulnerable, but at the end of the day, so was Christ in situations that were frightening, challenging, and that certainly made him vulnerable. But Christ, being who He was, accepted the risks, took on the challenges, and did not let fear stop Him. He didn’t even let death stop Him from achieving what He set out to do! So too must we, as His disciples, be willing to take on challenges, expose ourselves, take risks, and be willing to sacrifice in His name. I know that we all have the capacity to undertake encounters of any and all forms, and that is a great place to start in showing others who Christ is, what He and His followers are all about, and to begin new ministries for ourselves.

As our conversation was winding down, and I was preparing to leave, I asked my new friend if I could offer him a prayer. He said I could, nodding enthusiastically at the suggestion, so I led us in prayer. Before I began, I said,

“I never did get your name.”

He pointed to the plastic shopping bag that his hands were wrapped around. My eyes moved to where his fingers were pointing and I saw the word “Christmas” adorning the white, dirty bag he was clutching. So I sat with my brother Christmas, and I prayed that God would guide him on his journey and keep him safe. I gave him a pat on the shoulder as I concluded the prayer and wished him well.

“God bless you my friend, thank you for that, God bless you.”

“And God bless Canton too?” I joked.

“Oh ya! God bless Canton. God bless you!”

I made my way back to my car and waved as I pulled out of the cemetery. I took a left on Central Street and headed towards Route 24 to continue with the rest of my day.

Throughout Scripture we see examples of God giving second chances. From the adulterous woman, to the prodigal son, to the thief on the cross, Jesus showed- and continues to show us- that in and through Him, there is forgiveness, there is hope, and there is redemption. Having been privy to this myself quite a few times throughout my life is beyond humbling, and something that keeps my faith alive and my relationship with God getting stronger. The next time you make a mistake, screw someone over, lie to a friend or family member, don’t beat yourself up, don’t hang your head, don’t think you’ve done something irrevocable. Admit your wrong, and take hope in the cross; the eternal message of salvation and goodness extended to us freely from a God who loves us more than we know. And the next time you see my brother Christ(mas) on the street, tattered clothes, duffle bag and walking stick in hand, stop and ask him how he’s doing. Offer him a prayer. You never know what could happen next.

Andrew Staiti, Storyteller