In most churches you wouldn't find a homeless man, smeared in ketchup, dangling a doll and a ghost by chains and packing a knife as one of the greeters at the Children's Candy Carnival on Halloween night — but that's church in our neighborhood.
I was alerted that there was a potential problem at the entrance of the East Central Community Center as our annual Halloween event was kicking off. I was trying to stack really small cupcakes on a teetering tray without plunging my fingers into each frosted top. I knew if the front door man, a former Vietnam vet called in for backup, than we probably had an issue brewing that required my help. So dressed in my lumberjack costume and licking frosting from my fingers, I headed to the front door of the center.
As I entered the foyer it was teeming with arriving children and parents and there stood Sasquatch. His name is Bruce, but he's a spitting image of the Bigfoot from Harry and the Hendersons. Tonight he was in rare form, drunk from a day of drinking, half naked with his dirty and hairy body exposing all the places where he had smeared ketchup on himself in honor of Halloween. His rats nest of a long mane and beard that rivals Rip Van Winkles were everywhere, his hunched over mannerisms and the swirling smoke from his rolled cigarettes, were a sight to behold on this spooky evening. He was dangling chains with some action figure and ghost and he was intending to head into the kid's carnival to party with the community.
I tactfully guided him outside into the dark sidewalk arrival area to try to talk to him away from the crowd. He hesitantly obliged. By his demeanor I could see why my front door volunteer had been unsure how to handle the awkward, whirling Dervish. He was was getting wound up with each attempt to stall him from bringing all his wildness into the center.
I escorted my friend to the side of the entrance with gentle words of humor and distraction. I could tell he was loaded, which for this guy means, he gets pretty belligerent, loud and unpredictable. He's never been violent but he would make the most self-assured man uneasy and send children fleeing in all directions, if he manifested his most quirky and demonstrative self. He is mostly seen as beast, but I know him as a kind man, even though he's quite a package to behold, I really like him.
He reluctantly allowed me to redirect his intentions and he crouched down on the ground bemoaning why he couldn't go to the party. I could hear a little boy in the big man's voice and the deep sense of rejection and anger that such sidelining patterns provokes was seething among his cursing and complaining. I also crouched down to talk to him on his level, not above him as some hard-ass authority that I was reluctantly having to play. I explained to him that this was a no-alcohol event and that he was too drunk and smeared in ketchup which looked like blood and kids would be frightened by him.
He offered to clean up but I had to gently, but firmly, explain that the kid's carnival wasn't an adult party and he'd have to understand that he would have to be sober to go in to the carnival. He understood and asked if he could hang out with the welcoming group. I told him that was OK and that I would get him some goodies from inside but he had to promise me to not get crazy out there.
I went inside to assume my hosting role and went to the coffee table where our volunteers were serving parents. One of the ladies at the table quickly informed me that there was a knife wielding man trying to get into the party, I assured her I had taken care of the situation and that he wouldn't be a problem. She seemed relieved and then told he that he had donated doughnuts for the party.
I stood there a bit stunned at the irony of the whole moment. The complexity of trying to protect and provide a safe environment for children and families in our neighborhood but also having a heart of compassion for other members of our community that don't fit into the proper decorum and demeanor categories for holiday celebrations was pressing me hard. I told her to open the doughnuts and serve them to our guests, knowing that most people would not accept a doughnut from his hand but would eat one from the table. I felt sadness by the truth of it, but a slight joy at the thought of people eating goodies from the man they probably sidestepped to avoid coming into the party.
Mother Teresa always said that, "Jesus comes to us in the distressing disguise of the poor," and I've grown accustomed to be on the lookout for Him in the most unlikely places. But don't be fooled, Jesus still loves to place us into the perplexing conundrums of conscience. He corners us with the truth, will we walk the talk or bow to the pressure to save ourselves or others from the inevitable cost of being true to the gospel?
I knew that for me, that night the Almighty was Bruce. He came smeared in burger sauce, creeping like a Nazgul and smelling like PBR but bearing gifts of sugar and revelation.
I pray that someday when I see Jesus face to face, he will be alright with how that all went down.