Loiter Larry rose to the challenge and accepted the mission assignment a week ago. He came back and reported on it. He described how timid he was, and how he showed up just a bit late. Then it was mostly uneventful. He shook hands with one person – ONE PERSON. Nothing was said to him about his smell.
I began thinking, that’s probably the standard. No one talks about it.
Oh, Larry suffered a lot of shame. He worried that someone might talk about it… behind his back. But other than his own anxiety over it, there was no evidence that his mission made any difference to anyone except himself (and maybe his readers).
Here’s an ironic thought: I think I smell a conspiracy.
I went to church this weekend and repeated the mission assignment where I go. I went expecting Larry’s experience to be mine too. And it was, mostly. I really felt the sting of shame. I worried over it too. But I had Larry’s experience to learn from and I had a copy of Yankoski’s book describing his experience with it too. So, even though I felt a lot of shame, I also felt emboldened. And sure enough, no one spoke to me about it.
I don’t want to be unfair about this. I think it’s possible someone still might come to me and bring it up. I met a few people who made mention of my placard or my shirt, and I handed them each a business card with the blog address on it. By now I have handed dozens of them out at church. But so far no one there has commented, liked, emailed, or privately mentioned having read here to me. It’s like the social phenom called Studied Non-Observance. There is an unwritten rule that church people should ignore homeless folx on the one hand and prophets on the other.
So I was emboldened. But let me just tell about the way my morning went, and I hope you see my boldness in the telling of it.
Before leaving the house
I woke up in the living room, since I wasn’t about to go to my bed. I woke up early. My mind was on stinking for church. I recalled when I was a small child how my grandpa would shine his Sunday shoes on Saturday night. He was on a regular basis preparing for church a solid 12 hours before going. I had started skipping showers on Friday morning. Not exactly the same, but it somehow made me remember the old man.
I had foster children to prepare for Sunday worship. I cleaned them and dressed them up, while I began to fear that I just didn’t stink bad enough. No one in my house actively complained to me. I remember working in the Psych hospital and witnessing a patient off their meds go for over three months with no shower. The scrubs this patient wore actually turned from blue to brown – and that was in a clean hospital environment. The smell of this person was so bad, other patients did not want to eat across the room from this one. And here I was hoping to up the intensity because even though 3 days is bad, it just wasn’t bad enough.
I was considering stuffing one of the baby diapers in my pocket to ratchet up the stench. But then I thought if I could build up an extra good sweat in my current clothes one more time, it would be more natural. I dug out my insulated coveralls, put a coat on over that, and began doing calisthenics. Somehow, I just wasn’t getting hot enough, I thought. Then I remembered a stocking hat I keep in my bag. I went to grab it.
It just so happens, I have not used my bag for a few weeks. But on Saturday, when Agent Z and I hit the streets, I grabbed it and stuffed my Bible in it and some communion supplies. But I didn’t realize until we were downtown that sometime back I had taken a brown bag dinner to a study group meeting and left the leftovers in a baggy down in my book-bag. The leftovers from that meal had rotted thoroughly, and the stench was overpowering. When I found it, I just threw it all in a trashcan. But the stocking cap had been right under it. And when I pulled it out, the stench of that rotten meal filled the house.
I promptly put the stocking hat on my head. I almost threw up from the smell! It was a gift from God, I thought! I finally had my stink on. I overwhelmed myself.
The smell was so bad, after about 5 minutes, I had enough of it and tossed the hat. But the residue stayed with me. I asked my wife and kids, and they assured me I was smelling rank.
(Oh… btw, I thank God I have a wife, who though she does not understand, is willing to endure God’s call on my life. Thanx to Mrs. Agent X for her loving, patient support!)
Arriving at church
Finally, I loaded up babies, and we headed up to church. I grabbed a placard Agent Z made a while back that says, “The Least of These Slept On the Streets Last Night – Matt. 25”. I attached it to the baby stroller and wheeled us in to the sanctuary.
We were met at the door by a door greeter who handed us a program/bulletin. I handed the greeter a card. Then I shared greetings with a widow lady in the lobby we invited over for dinner a few weeks ago. She spoke to the babies, of course. I did not detect that she smelled anything funny. She made no mention and no funny expressions. And yes… I was scrutinizing the Looking Glass Self!
We were there a few minutes early, so I took a seat near the back and to the right, not far from one of the main entrances. I unloaded our gear and set the placard facing the door where people coming in would see it. I knew that perhaps as many as 100 people would walk past the point where I was sitting. Some of them would know me and greet me. Most would not.
Shortly before the worship service started, my sister-n-law and her husband found us. She asked if the seats just behind us were taken, but before she and I had a chance to talk about it, her husband, who was shaking my hand by that time, suggested to her that they could sit on the other side of the sanctuary. (I have to just assume he was moved by the smell, because he did not say that in front of me.)
As the song service began, I noticed another couple come up behind us. They almost took the two seats just behind us, but after a moment, the slipped a few paces away. Again, I am left assuming I know why.
The song service was good. And we opened the worship with communion and a collection. Then sang more songs before the pastor stood up to preach. He preached from several passages in Luke’s Gospel – passages that featured Jesus “touching” undesirable/poor people. He delivered an impassioned sermon about how the church, which is the Body of Christ, is to do for the world around us like Jesus does to the world around him. We too are supposed to touch these people. He even suggested that he thinks Luke wrote this gospel with churches like ours in mind – people of means, people very much like middle, to upper middle class lifestyles.
As the service concluded with more singing and some remarks from one of the bishops (and two baptisms as well), two different women who are familiar with my foster babies came down the aisle and stopped to hug on the child in my arms at that moment. Neither one let on that my smell was offensive. But that would be extremely unlikely or unnecessary as worship was still in progress. But they had each just sat through a sermon about Jesus touching undesirable people and the admonition for us to as well. So…. Hmmm…
Finally, one last person greeted us before we left the sanctuary. My wife’s uncle. He is a doctor and all, but he is a humble man. And when we got married, he particularly stepped up to serve the homeless in the serving line. So, I am not surprised at his gentle kindness at all. But still, he said nothing of my appearance or smell.
At long last, as we were making our way out the door, the babies in the stroller and me, a man I do not know held the door open for us to walk through. He read the placard hanging from the stroller and made polite comment about it. I told him we work in street ministry, and I handed him a card and invited him to check out our website.
With that, it was done. We loaded up and headed home, where I wasted no time steaming up the bathroom.
When it was all said and done, I didn’t get any direct feedback over the smell at all. And honestly, I don’t know what to expect. There is no doubt that toting babies and looking homeless sends a mixed message. The nonverbal social cue is mixed up. The idea of telling someone they stink is a taboo almost as bad as stinking itself.
On the one hand, if I was better connected with these people on an interpersonal level, I think they would feel more open to inquire. Yet that might suggest that someone there reads here too sometimes. But that says something sad about church too. Why after more than a year of attending there am I not better connected?
But then there is that other part… the part this blog addresses all the time. The fact that a church… of all institutions… a church… with homeless people gathered round the property at night should know what to do with them. And this one has a preacher preaching very powerful sermons preparing this church just as much as a sermon can to actually TOUCH them.
So, let me say this by way of expectations: If you read here with any regularity, AND if you go to worship assembly with any regularity (which you should, btw (Heb. 10:25)), then the next time you meet someone at church who stinks like they haven’t had a shower in days, invite that person out to lunch afterward and find out why they stink – even if you have to come right out and ask. And then see if they have any needs your church might be able to TOUCH.