Did Jesus come, disguised and unrecognized, as one of ‘the least of my brothers’?
By George Valadie
The first time they met—if you want to call it that—was out back behind the store. Neither had expected the other to be there.
Jeremy, the manager of the college bookstore, our son-in-law and one of the two principal characters in this vignette, had stepped outside to trash some boxes when he looked up and was startled a bit by a disheveled looking male figure.
That man, knowing he probably wasn’t supposed to be there, was equally surprised, popped up, gathered what little he had, and began to scurry away.
He’d been crouched near the dumpster, having found a place away from the wind and a secluded spot where he could eat a small bite in peace.
“You don’t have to go anywhere,” offered Jeremy. “You can hang here. Just do me a favor and pick up your trash before you go.”
Neither knew nor predicted their paths would cross again. No numbers, no names, no money had been exchanged.
But there’d been no nastiness either.
Located smack dab in the middle of Little Rock, Ark., the store is in the perfect location to centrally serve the various schools whose students it supplies.
But college kids aren’t the only ones nearby. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates more than half a million people in this country walk the streets. Little Rock has not been spared.
Neither has his store been spared from the recent shortage of employees. So Jeremy found himself, then and for the foreseeable future, as employer and employee, stuck working every shift by himself.
A few weeks after their initial encounter, the December cold snap blanketed the country.
And the same disheveled man reappeared, again unexpectedly, this time venturing inside from the parking lot.
“Hey, man, is there any chance you’ve got something to eat you could give me?”
“Well, we don’t normally keep much food around here, but let me look.”
Jeremy returned from the back office with a single can of soup. “I found this, but I’m sorry, we don’t have any way to heat it up or anything to eat it with.”
“That’s OK, thanks so much, this will be great just like this.”
And before he had crossed the parking lot, he had already pulled the ring top and was devouring what was surely an infrequent meal, such as it was. Cold as it was.
Still, no money, no names. And no nastiness.
As the afternoon wore on, darkness approached, temperatures fell, and the man reappeared one more time.
“Hey, you were decent to me earlier. So I have to ask, is there any chance you might have an extra blanket around here?”
“No, I’m sorry, we don’t keep any here. But I tell you what, I know I’ve got an extra one at home. If you come back by tomorrow, I’ll have one for you.”
But knowing the freezing night that awaited, Jeremy offered, “Do you have any gloves? If not take these. And this.”
And he watched his favorite pair and a $20 bill walk out the door.
As closing time was approaching, Jeremy noticed the man yet again. He was still in the parking lot, nowhere to go, sitting on a cardboard mat, hunkered up against a wall and the cold.
And then I think Jeremy surprised them both.
“Hey, buddy, if you’ll hang over there for just a little more, I’ll be out here and give you a hand.”
At day’s end, he approached the man whom he noticed had been limping, “I’m Jeremy. What’s your name?”
“Tracy, what’s wrong with your leg?”
“I’ve had frostbite twice. I went to the hospital once—they wouldn’t help me. But I guess I was too impatient. I walked out.”
“Where do you stay?”
“I find a spot.”
“How’d you get in this mess?”
“Things just went bad. My dad died a few years ago. And my mom won’t have anything to do with me anymore. No family other than her.”
“Because of some of your decisions?”
“One or two.”
“Well, I tell you what. I want to help you out. It’s not much, but I can help you today. I like to help people who need it, but I don’t like helping people who are doing crazy things. Have you ever done drugs?”
“Yeah, I’ve done some meth. But not now.”
“Have you ever stolen anything?”
“Yeah, I admit it. When things were bad, I stole some food from the store.”
“Have you ever hurt anybody?”
“No. I’d never hurt anybody.”
Admitted sins aside, Jeremy offered, “Well, Tracy, if you want, I’m gonna drive you over to the LaQuinta and get you a room for the night.”
Jeremy’s a big guy, capable of taking care of himself, but he’s not careless. “I should tell you, though, I’ve got a weapon in this truck. And you’ve got a big old jacket on. You got anything like that on you?”
“No. And I’ll tell you something. No one’s ever taken me anywhere before like this. So I’m kinda nervous, too.”
Three blocks over, and figuring the management wouldn’t want any part of a homeless guy, he left Tracy in the truck, went inside and paid the bill for a one-night stay.
“Tracy, I want you to rest up, warm up, take a shower, clean yourself up, and get a good night’s sleep. You know things aren’t gonna get much better if you keep doing that stuff.”
“Yeah, I know. Do you have any cigarettes?” Tracy asked for one last favor.
“No, I used to but not anymore. There’s a convenience store right across the street. I gave you $20, and it’s yours. You can do what you want with it. But I wish you wouldn’t spend it on cigarettes. But it’s yours.”
And as they said goodbye, “Oh, yeah, don’t forget to come by tomorrow, and I’ll have a blanket for you
. . . and maybe a little food.”
I’m embarrassed to admit there are more than a few days when I struggle parting with even one of my dollar bills for those standing on the corner. And for some reason I’m never even certain if I should.
As for Jeremy, he never thought twice, even though his own future is uncertain. The owner-partners of the bookstore he manages recently decided to part ways. At month’s end, he and his store will fall victims to their divorce.
Thus, and oh so ironically, in the not-too-distant future, Jeremy’s looking at being as unemployed as Tracy is—at least until he finds what’s next.
He knew all that, and he helped him anyway. A lot.
That evening, Jeremy packed up one of the kids’ extra backpacks with a blanket, a few Little Debbies, and some peanut butter and crackers. But Tracy never returned. He wanders still.
I’ve never believed it entirely out of the question that Jesus does indeed occasionally return, disguised and unrecognized, to see how we might treat Him. Or maybe He’s sent someone.
“When did we see a stranger and welcome you? Or naked and clothe you?
“And the King will say to them in reply, ‘Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me.’”
I’m not saying Tracy is Jesus; heck, he might not even know His name. But I do know he’s made in His image and likeness. Bad decisions and all. And that’s all that really matters.
It’s all that mattered to Jeremy.
Dear God—Please bless all who live like Tracy, and please help us live more like Jeremy. Amen.
George Valadie is a parishioner at St. Stephen Church in Chattanooga.