He wasn't holding a sign claiming to be a homeless veteran needing a handout. He didn't ask me for anything. In fact, he didn't even acknowledge my presence when I arrived. He simply sat quietly, with a weathered backpack next to him, on the ground outside the Starbucks store in the Linda Mar Shopping Center in Pacifica. Kathy had gone inside to get a drink. I sat down at an open table close to where the bearded man wearing a beanie was sitting. To me, he appeared to be homeless.
"How's it going?" I asked. He looked at me through the lenses of his sunglasses and, at first, didn't respond. Then he did.
"What?" he asked, somewhat caustically. I was taken aback at his tone.
"I try not to ignore people," I explained in a conciliatory voice. "I was just acknowledging your presence."
That awkward exchange was the beginning of a lengthy, insightful, thought-provoking conversation about people, politics, Pope Francis, President Obama, kindness, Catholicism, and much more.
Chris is in his late 50's. He was born and raised in Pacifica. In fact, he told me that his father had once been the mayor of Pacifica. Is he homeless? I don't know. Despite the fact that he appeared to be, we didn't talk about his living situation. All I know about him is that he attended Terra Nova High School in the late 70's, he's lived his entire life in Pacifica, he's never been married, and he is significantly more intelligent and articulate than I had anticipated.
I wasn't keeping track of the time, but our conversation must have lasted at least forty-five minutes, possibly longer. The chill of our initial exchange thawed quickly as we shared our opinions and observations about faith, humanity, acceptance, and the current state of affairs in the Church and in our country.
I am grateful for the encounter with Chris. While I did make the assumption, right or wrong, that he was homeless, my intention in speaking to him was simply to acknowledge his presence. Homeless people are often ignored, as if they didn't exist. I've often taught my students, and my own three boys, to be respectful of homeless people by, if nothing else, acknowledging their presence. We shouldn't walk past them ignoring them as if they were no different than a fire hydrant.
Mother Teresa noticed this, as well, prompting her to point out, "Many people are talking about the poor, but very few people talk to the poor." Talking to the poor can take us outside of our comfort zone, and so we walk right past them, pretending not even to notice their presence.
I don't know if Chris is poor, just as I don't know if he's homeless. What I do know about Chris is that he is human, and seeing him sitting, as he was, on the ground outside Starbucks, I felt compelled to talk with him. I'm glad I did. My day was better because of the experience.