Homeless Men on Father’s Day

It’s Father’s Day and my three children are all grown and literally thousands of miles away. I miss them terribly. My own father died a few years ago, at age 93. I know it’s a contrived type of holiday but it did get me thinking about fathers and father figures. To a large degree when I was growing up father figures – coaches, uncles, scout leaders – at times had a bigger role in “raising me right” than my own father. Some had their own kids and some didn’t. Some were wise and inspiring like Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird and others were wilder but taught you lessons that you still needed to learn. I remember the poet Robert Bly saying something like: if you’re a grown man you should find a way to support young men and boys. Show them you care and be a role model for them. And if you are a boy or a young man you should find older men who can guide you, teach you things and who care about you. I see an example of this once a week when I gather with friends at the Pipe Smoker’s Club. The ages of men and women attending range from 18 – 92. They come from all walks of life, races, religions, political spectrums, but all of that is put aside for the pleasure of smoking a good pipe or cigar. And let me make this clear to any young people reading this: DON’T SMOKE! But what I like about the group is the caring, comradery and general bonhomie of the attenders. They welcome everyone. You don’t even have to smoke to join the group. (The second hand smoke is free.) People in the group have helped each other with getting jobs, learning new skills and information, and, I know with me, helping me when I was feeling a bit down. When my own kids were growing up I was both a good role model and a bad role model. The good is easy to guess; the bad, well, at least I could say to them: “Let this be a warning to you. Don’t do as I do.” My kids received lots of these warning while growing up; still get them. And that’s okay. I remember the Baptist Minister Will Campbell, in one of his books, has a character define Christianity in 10 words or less. I like the definition he came up with: We’re all sinners but God loves us anyway.
Which finally brings me to my motorcycle ride today. It was time to get my 2004 Harley Road King, Big Red, out of the garage. Having ridden across the country twice I’m pretty comfortable meeting strangers. Since I couldn’t hang out with my kids I decided to ride to a nearby town and visit a free meal program, a place I had visited a few times before, and maybe talk with other fathers, ones that were homeless and probably not feeling that great today. I don’t want to try and appear saintly. The two women who organize the place and serve meals 3 times a week are saints. I’m not a saint and I can give you plenty of personal references that will say that I’m not. I just thought it might be a nice thing to do. I didn’t know if anyone else would walk away feeling better after the conversation but I knew I would. So I went.
I ended up chatting with four men over plates of food and iced tea. One told me that he was a father. That one of his kids had died and the other didn’t speak to him. He was helping another older man find a suit to wear as his father had just recently died and he needed it for the funeral. He didn’t want to talk. Another man said he had kids but didn’t elaborate. His arm was in a sling due to a shoulder injury at work. He was waiting for workman’s comp to kick in. One of the women running the place gave him some information about a nearby place that helps people get the medicine they need. The man had been brought there by a woman who was staying at the same motel as he was. She was from Alabama and she and her husband had moved here looking for work. She said the price of food was more expensive here and also that the rent was so high. Her husband had finally gotten a new job and they were going to move to a nearby town if they could find a place to live. She didn’t eat anything. She had wanted to help the man in the sling out. The last person I chatted with was a young man who was maybe in his early 20’s. I had met him a number of times before. He asked me to rub some alcohol on a spot on his back where he had been stung by a bee. I did that. Then he sat back down and put his head on a table. Later on he lifted up his head to tell me that his real dad had died when he was 15. Then he put his head back down.
It was past time for the place to close and the two women there began packing up. One told me about the new water cooler and plastic capped bags they had for people who were living rough in the woods. They had hooks on them which made them easier to carry on a bike and were better than just using water bottles folks had contributed. It was 96 degrees outside. I thanked the two women for the work they were doing and said goodbye to the young man. I took off on Big Red with a lot to think and pray about.

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