Photo Courtesy of Rob Nash
By Rob Nash
It was called “The Plunge” for a good reason. It was an option for students who took Dr. Larry McSwain's Church and Community course at Southern Seminary in the early 1980s.
Here's how it worked: you and another student in the class met Dr. McSwain on the front campus of the seminary where he made sure you only had $.35 in your pockets—just enough to get you into downtown Louisville on a city bus. Your instructions were to live for 24 hours on the streets of Louisville, surviving by hook or crook. You could beg, borrow or take advantage of the resources available to homeless persons in the city. You could sleep on the street or in a homeless shelter, whatever you might choose to do.
I have to confess that I was not looking forward to the experience—but it seemed to me to be much less strenuous than writing a research paper which was the other option Dr. McSwain offered, so off we went. It was a late Friday afternoon in May. Clay was my partner. We wore some old clothes to the front of campus. Met Dr. McSwain. Pocketed our $.35. Climbed on the bus.
By about 6 p.m. we were hungry. And we had no money. We made our way up to a hotel and discovered that it was prom night. If you ever find yourself having to panhandle on a Friday night in May, then I'll let you in on a secret: you can make some quick money by standing at a place where guys are bringing their dates to the prom. These guys were unloading money like nobody's business. In about 20 minutes, we had collected about $12 between us—enough to pick up a nice dinner of greasy White Castle burgers down the street.
We wandered around the rest of the evening and discovered quite a community of homeless people—men and women who, for some reason, were willing to let us in on how to survive on the streets. One gentleman pointed us toward the Salvation Army. “They'll give you a nice bed over there,” he said. “It doesn't smell all that great and you have to listen to a preacher in the morning, but you get a good breakfast.”
Fortunately, we got there before the place filled up. We got beds and settled in for the evening. The gentleman was right about the smell. From what I could tell, most of it came from dirty feet.
He was also right about the preacher. This guy was awful. He yelled and harangued at us for about 30 minutes while we sat there with growling bellies. Mercifully, that punishment ended and we were able to eat a good breakfast of eggs, bacon, grits and toast. I don't think I've ever eaten a more delicious breakfast.
We made our way back out onto the streets where we would ask folks who were obviously homeless where to go and what to do. They would point us toward parks where we could rest and eventually toward a soup kitchen where we could have lunch.
In the afternoon, we found ourselves under I-71 along the Ohio River. It was there that we met Robert. He was sitting against one of those huge interstate pylons with a bottle of whiskey in his hand.
“What you boys up to?” he asked.
“We're just wandering around. Mind if we sit with you?” Clay asked.
We declined his offer of whiskey. It was tempting, but we just didn't think Dr. McSwain would approve. Robert took a couple of swigs and started telling us his story. He was a Vietnam veteran who had served a couple of tours in that war and had never gotten over it. After Vietnam, he tried to make a go at life and failed. Eventually his wife divorced him. He couldn't hold a job, and he wound up on the streets of Louisville.
He paused in the middle of his story when a police cruiser pulled under the highway.
“Hey, buddy,” he said to me. “Would you take care of this whiskey bottle just a minute?” He pushed it behind my back, between me and the pylon. I didn't quite know what to say, so I said nothing. We sat there as the police officer rolled down his window.
“What you up to, Robert?” the officer queried.
“Aw, just sitting here with some buddies,” he responded. “You haven't been drinking, have you?”
“Aw, nawsir,” he responded. “Don't even have my bottle with me today.” And he lifted up his empty hands.
“All right, then—you boys behave,” the officer said. And he pulled on out to the street. Robert quickly reached behind me and pulled the bottle out.
“Thanks,” he said.
I sat there, and I thought about the words of Jesus in Matthew 25. When Jesus says, “If you have done it unto one of the least of these, then you have done it unto me,” I think he is talking about Robert.
He was one of those people you pass on the street in a big city all the time, and you have this inner struggle about whether to give him a dollar. You wonder exactly how he might use it. You think to yourself, He's just gonna spend it on liquor. And maybe you shake your head at him and pass him by, or maybe you do go ahead and give him a dollar because you decide it just doesn't matter one way or the other what he does with it.
And the reality is that there are Roberts all over the world, a billion or more of him.
People who are struggling through life making a dollar a day, or less. Some of them have gotten themselves in the mess they are in, and most of them are in that mess because of realities over which they have absolutely no control.
There we sat under the interstate by the pylon. Clay, Robert and me. Robert pointed at a grocery cart filled with aluminum cans.
“Would you boys help me push that to the redemption center?” he asked. “I don't know if I can do it by myself.”
We stood up, and Clay started pushing the cart. Another homeless man came along, and Robert said, “Oh, my friend here can help me now, and you all can go on your way.”
As we turned to leave, Robert suddenly looked at me, pointed his finger in my face, and said, “I know who you are!” And, squinting his eyes up into my face at the sun that was shining behind me, he grabbed my shirt by the lapel and pulled me down to him.
“You're my guardian angel,” he said… (continued in the Fall Issue of Tableaux)
Dr. Rob Nash is Associate Dean for the Doctor of Ministry Program as well as Professor of Missions & World Religions at McAfee School of Theology.