By Bethany Keener
It wasn’t until after the homeless man had shuffled out of the train car that I realized what an impact Terry Cain had made on me the night before. Because of her, I had opened my heart and my wallet to four strangers in the past 12 hours.
Terry is one of the quieter members of the small community of people with and without intellectual disabilities who share their lives together. She shyly turned down our entreaties to dance with us (in spite of her great Michael Jackson moves) and spent more of her time doing word searches than gabbing. But on the second night we were together she surprised me.
After dinner we were reflecting on Mark 6, in which Jesus feeds thousands of people with just five loaves of bread and two fish:
Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, Jesus gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. —Mark 6: 41-43 (NIV)
Several others, including me, had already shared their thoughts about what the verses meant. I didn’t imagine Terry would have much to say. Then she took a deep breath and launched into a beautiful and lengthy soliloquy. She spoke of God’s love, of unity in spite of differences, and of our need to help the homeless.
“They have nothing,” she said, leaning forward in her seat and punctuating her words with gestures. She listed examples of what those of us in the room had to be thankful for, concluding with a sigh of contentment, “I’m so happy I grew up to be in L’Arche.”
I sat absorbing it all, feeling the warm glow I get in L’Arche when every person is given a chance to speak and their thoughts are received with respect.
As the evening drew to a close it was hard to say good-bye to these new friends, knowing that in 24 hours we would be 2,600 miles apart. After several rounds of hugs, I left for my hotel.
Later on, my husband and I made a late-night run to Subway since he hadn’t yet had dinner. While standing in line, I observed the man ahead of me. He handed the cashier a credit card. She swiped it, then shook her head. He took out another card and punched in a PIN. Again, the cashier shook her head. A third card emerged from his wallet. “That’s for laundry,” the cashier stated flatly. Clearly, he was desperate and out of luck. “I’ll have to make some calls,” he said, ducking his head and retreating to the back of the restaurant where a friend was waiting for him.
I didn’t know if the man was homeless, but I thought of Terry’s passionate words, “They have nothing!” I reached in to my wallet and fingered a crisp twenty, one of five I had retrieved from the ATM before leaving home. For once I didn’t feel the awkward tension of encountering another person in need. I knew what I needed to do.
As the cashier rang up my purchases I leaned in and said, “I’d like to pay for that gentleman’s meal.” She seemed surprised but gave me the total, which came to nearly $30. I forked over two twenties, then dashed to the door to call the man and his friend back. With all their options exhausted, they had given up on dinner and were already moving on.
“I saw your card wasn’t working and figured it would be a waste not to take the sandwiches since they’re already made,” I offered, not wanting to embarrass them. The man stared at me, seeming bewildered by what was happening. He filled his cup at the soda fountain and thanked me a few times before my husband and I slipped out the door.
I’ll never see him again, but I won’t miss the $25 I spent on a meal for two strangers. Nor will I miss the spare change I gave away the next morning when two others asked for help.
Terry’s passionate heart inspired me, and the story of baskets of leftovers reminds me of God’s great generosity. Love, like the loaves and fishes, can also be multiplied until there is more than enough for all.
Bethany Keener is L’Arche USA’s communications manager. She lives in Arlington, Virginia, with her husband Steve and their two sons.
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