Wednesday, March 27, 2018
Mike died too young. He was in his mid-twenties, had a family that loved him, and a good head on his shoulders. It seemed to me that he believed the rest of his life, the best of his life, was yet to come. Mike lived outside most of the time; he lived rough and ran with a pretty rough crew of other homeless young people. But he was one of the friendliest, most likable people I think I’ve ever met. Sure, he had a problem with drugs and an even bigger problem with alcohol – but that didn’t define him. What Mike really liked to do was feed people. He’d get his Food Stamp card and spend everything he had on it down at the Safeway. Hot dogs, steak, ribs, hamburgers, bags of chips all loaded into plastic bags as he climbed the hill to the park. Someone else would bring the charcoal or else he’d find some dry wood laying around to start a fire. Then he’d cook. And drink. But it was the cooking that his friends remembered about him.
I wanted to help Mike. I’d met his father a couple of times, and experienced how sad he felt about what had become of his son. He seemed to know the fate that Mike was headed toward. That vision of his son’s future terrified him. Once when Mike was in jail, his father asked me to visit Mike. Not to talk him into or out of anything. Just to visit and see how he was doing.
Between Mike and me there was a thick plexiglass window; I could just barely see my own reflection on the glass in front of Mike’s face. We picked up the telephones and had some small talk before I asked what he wanted to do after he was released. “I wanna make a big barbeque for everybody,” he said, his eyes gleaming as he smiled.
“How is he?” Mike’s father asked me. “He’s OK, I guess,” I replied, not sure how much to share. “Do you know that he feeds people?” I asked. He did not know this, I could tell by the look on his face. I told him about the barbeques and the Food Stamp card and the bags of groceries hauled up the hill. Tears. “That sure does sound like Mike…My son feeds people.”
When Mike died, his friends were crushed. Some of them turned against each other, blaming each other for something that was clearly larger than them and no single person’s fault. It blew the group apart. Some of his friends disappeared and others, in the wake of his death, finally accepted or sought out help – at least four of them I know for sure are sober over a year now and two of them are raising families.
The year after his death, his friends planned a barbeque in his honor. It was a beautiful thing to see – this tight group that had splintered after his passing coming back together to remember their friend with this simple ritual of sharing food with each other. “Say what you will about Mike,” one of his friends said to me, “but that guy really knew how to feed people. And there’s no better way of remembering him than feeding each other.” To that, I have to say, “Amen.”
Rev. Paul Gaffney
Program Manager, SFTS Shaw Institute for Spiritual Care and Interreligious Chaplaincy
SFTS MDiv 2004