I met a homeless man the other day named Zack. He was sitting cross-legged against the wall of a bank. He had long grey hair and wore a necklace of beads and porcupine quills above a faded cowboy shirt. His sign said he was a 72 year-old vet. After talking a while, we discovered we both were born in the same place, Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver, he in 1943 and me in ’44. We shook hands at that, as if it somehow made us brothers.
He told me stories about his life, all of them having to do with God’s grace in taking care of him when he was in danger in Vietnam and in the States. He told how God opened the wisdom of the Bible to him, but that God hadn’t stopped there. When Zack was later given a book of the Buddha’s teachings, he asked God if it was okay to read Buddha’s book. God told him it was fine. So he read that book and found the same truth in it he had found in the Bible. Then it happened again when someone gave him the Bhagavad-Gita, and again when he was given a copy of the Quran.
Zack’s faith filled him with an inner strength that was contagious. It was the same with his embrace of diverse people and beliefs. I went away feeling uplifted by his spirit.
Last winter I picked up another homeless man hitchhiking on a forlorn stretch of road in the desert of southern Colorado. I had been enjoying driving alone, listening to Schubert’s Trout Quintet, and didn’t want to stop. He was obviously homeless, with several coats on, long matted hair, a sleeping roll and backpack with boots and things hanging off it. But as I was about to pass him I remembered once being in the same position, hitchhiking in the middle of the Nevada desert, the rare cars taking no notice of me. So I stopped. After he loaded his gear in the back seat and sat down next to me I was sure I had made a mistake — the car filled with the smell of unwashed body, unwashed clothes, and wood smoke.
But over the next two hours I heard his story, and came to feel blessed to be in his company. His name was Reed. He too was a vet, had been wounded, came back home and started drinking heavily. He got into hard drugs, his wife left him for another man, and finally he tried to kill himself. That’s when he found Jesus and his life changed.
For the past eight years, he said, he’d been traveling up and down the West, on this same route, from Phoenix, Arizona to Cheyenne, Wyoming, visiting a network of vets who live in towns and cities along the way. Most of the guys he visits live alone, some of them banged up physically from the wars, others mentally unstable. Reed stays with each of them for a few days or a few weeks, helping out, fixing up their places, doing chores. He doesn’t ask for any money; he gives what he can and then moves on. A homeless angel.