I saw Raymond on the street tonight as I waited at a light. At least it looked like Raymond, though I found it hard to believe he could still be alive. The unsteady saunter was faintly familiar. And the face, though covered by an unmanaged crop of matted white beard, bore a slight resemblance to an older homeless alcoholic who used to call me "little brother" at our Wednesday lunches at the church. But that was nearly twenty years ago! I seriously doubted that Raymond could still be surviving on the streets. My curiosity got the best of me. When the light changed, I pulled into an Amoco station toward which the bearded man was heading, a vantage point which gave me a closer look as well as a legitimate excuse for getting out of the van. I was just putting the nozzle into the tank when he ambled toward me, already mouthing a jumbled story about needing only $1.25 for bus fare to get home. Before even looking me in the face, he held out a crumpled brown bag from which extruded the handles of a large pair of pliers and asked me to accept them as security for a loan of $2.00. It was Raymond alright. His eyes had sunken in their sockets - the right one had been put out - and his face was badly scarred and pocked, but I would have recognized that voice and those well-rehearsed lines anywhere.
"Hello, Raymond," I said. I'm not sure whether my smile or the personal greeting puzzled him more. He studied me carefully with his good eye, his confused mind sifting back through years of faces in search of a picture of some friend that he had not alienated. For long moments he stood there staring, laboring mentally to connect with a silted-over memory that would make sense of this encounter. Slowly a smile crept across his weathered face as he reached out a bony hand and uttered my name. I was astonished that he still remembered after all these years. One memory surfaced another as Raymond began to recall my family and others from the church and the time he and I climbed onto the church roof to find a leak and how he did a great tarring and flashing job for us. His face softened as friendly emotions seeped in from a distant time. He rambled on, affirming that he "still loves his Jesus," even though the reverend at the church didn't have much time for him anymore.
And then, as though a dim light had flickered out, Raymond's attention snapped back to his present predicament and he resumed his well-rehearsed survival talk. A two dollar loan would get him home tonight. Then spying four ones in my wallet, he abruptly raised his request to three dollars that would get him all the way home. But what he really needed was a four dollar loan - four for six on the check he would be getting tomorrow for sure. It was a well- rehearsed assortment of hustle-babble, connected to neither reality nor truth, that came without conscious thought.
When I first moved into the city, Raymond was one of the early characters I encountered. On one occasion when we were eating lunch together in the church basement, he said something that threw my theology off balance. "I ain't no Christian," he said, "but I love my Jesus." There was no doubt in his mind that he was a sinner - a pretty bad one. And in spite of the fact that he felt utterly incapable of breaking free from his life-destroying patterns, somewhere down inside he clung to an awareness that Jesus did love him. No one could have felt more unworthy of that love or more helpless to do anything to deserve it. And yet he clung to that belief like a drowning man to a piece of wood.
Raymond was the polar opposite of my concept of a Christian. But I had to admit that there were similarities with the man in Jesus' story who stood downcast at the back of the temple beating his chest and pleading "God be merciful to me a sinner" - the one that went away justified. Raymond forced me to ponder a perplexing question: can a broken, self-destructive derelict be a person of faith? Now, nearly twenty years later, I found myself wondering if it was his faith, imperfect though it may be, that had kept him alive on the streets all these years.
I pulled the four dollars out of my billfold and pressed them into Raymond's hand, in complete violation of a long-held principal of never giving anything to anyone who had the capacity to earn it. It was an impulsive act, accompanied by neither conditions nor expectations, that came from a free and tender place within me. He thanked me profusely and for a brief moment we stood there smiling broadly at each other, neither of us saying a word. A parting handshake and I was back in the van and pulling away from the station. I glanced back for one last look at Raymond and heard him say, "Take care, little brother."