His dirty brown hair was pulled back in a half-ponytail, Rastafarian style, clumps of stringy hair hanging halfway down his back. The untrimmed, scraggly beard covered the lower part of his face, and together with his elf-like delicate eyebrows, made him look for all the world like Jesus Christ.
It was that thought that stopped me in my tracks as I nearly sneered at the dingy Army green vest with obese sumo wrestlers embroidered on the back. When he got up to greet someone who reached out to him, the broken, unlaced workboots on his feet made me gasp.
What was HE doing HERE?
I couldn't help myself. Among the splendor of our high Episcopal church, full of elderly, genteel folk, and young families with smartly turned-out children, this vagrant seemed distinctly out of place. Our soaring, historic stained glass windows cast jewel-like shadows across nearly 200 years of Gothic architecture, beautiful sculpture, and gleaming metalwork crucifixes. The scent of incense, used during high Holy Days, wafts up from the royal red carpet, which blankets the floor from the iconic red front doors to the ornate altar.
Settling myself in what I considered to be “my” pew, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it. I mean, he was so different. Although clearly he was a young man, his grimy hands were gnarled like someone decades older. His knees bent outward like an Old West cowboy who'd spent too many years in the saddle. No wrinkles marked his pale face, but the countenance spoke of age, nonetheless. Leaning back in my seat, I pondered on him, tapping my 3rd Sunday in Lent bulletin against my chin.
Of course, the stranger was unaware of my musings. At nearly 50, I've spent 48 years people-watching; even as a young child, speculating on their life's story. It's human nature to make assumptions, but as I've grown up, I've tried to tamp down those bad habits.
Still, this was my church, and this stranger rattled me.
Then she approached him. It was a parish member, clad in a black velvet dress who'd just 3 days before endured the sudden death of her husband. Despite the crushing blow, she was still present this sunny Sunday, a wan smile on her face. She gripped the tall back of the pew with one hand and leaned in with the other graceful hand, reaching out to the stranger.
Their brief handshake turned my heart.
Who was the stranger? A tramp? An addict down on his luck? A drifter passing through town? Or was he an angel in disguise, sent to remind us of the value of ALL human life, regardless of outward appearances cultural practices, or language.
One never knows, does one, whether they walk among us. I for one, hope I never disappoint them.