Here I was in my jeans, a book in one hand and a coffee in the other, and suddenly I saw him.
He stumbled into the coffee shop as if he’d never been there before. His eyes didn’t seem to focus on anything. His coat, if that’s what you’d call it, just barely held itself together. His knit stocking cap looked as though every strand of yarn had come up with an escape plan.
He sat down at a table about twenty-five feet from mine, and then his eyes finally found something to focus on. They focused on me.
He stared at me for what seemed like an eternity.
The words froze on the page I was reading. Three or four times I lifted my head to glance his way, hoping he would look away. Each time his eyes caught mine and didn’t move. He just kept staring.
Well, that was awkward.
Finally, he put his head on the table and began a conversation with himself.
I looked around hesitantly to see if anyone else noticed him, but no one seemed to notice—or at least if they did, they were trying as hard as I was to hide it.
There was something inside me that wanted to meet him, though. I didn’t want to shake his hand, of course, because even from where I was sitting I could see his hands were filthy. But I at least wanted to ask him his name.
Eventually he lifted his head again—and once again he was looking at me.
I’d had enough. I made a motion with my head toward the food and quietly asked him if he wanted something to eat. He nodded, and I closed my book. I gathered my belongings and met him at the counter.
But I kept my distance. I wanted to make sure everyone knew we weren’t together. I was only doing my Christian duty. He was hungry, and I was supposed to feed him, but I didn’t want people to think he was my friend.
Plus, I could barely take the smell.
I sent him over to look at the large menus above the counter. He stared at them for what had to be three solid minutes. There were people behind him, but he didn’t care, or at least I thought he didn’t. Then I suddenly realized that he might not even be able to read.
Fortunately, while I dithered, the woman behind the counter figured out what to do. She made him a chicken sandwich.
Then it happened.
He stuck out his hand.
It was crusted with dirt. In fact he had dirt everywhere. When he touched his beard, dirt fell to the ground.
I hesitantly shook his hand and looked into his eyes. He said his name was Todd. I asked Todd where he sleeps. I couldn’t quite catch his answer. He said he travels a lot. I told him I get to travel a lot, too—as if that gave us something in common. I don’t think we meant it the same way, though.
After he got his sandwich I bought him a cookie the size of my head, along with a large dark roast coffee. He thanked me repeatedly, turned around and went back to his seat to eat. I told him it was nice to meet him and went on my way.
And that’s the end.
But wait! Wasn’t I supposed to have a profound experience here? Wasn’t I supposed to tell you I knew it was Jesus the minute I looked into his eyes?
Well, see, that’s where I’m a little embarrassed. I didn’t have to look into his eyes. I knew it was Jesus the moment he walked in (it's actually the first thing that came to mind). And I was still afraid to touch him. I was afraid to walk too close. I was afraid to say hi.
I know what you may be thinking: “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Jon. After all, you bought him a meal! How many other people did that for him that day?” Yeah, I thought that, too. But that's no excuse. Not for me, and not for you.
I’m not Mother Teresa—I accept that. And I'm not going to be so hard on myself as to become discouraged––after all, writing this is humiliating enough. But I know I need to get better, and so do most of you.
You’ve probably heard all the stories about how Mother Teresa kissed leprosy and comforted people on the streets who had seconds to live. And I'm sure she hesitated once in a while, too. She smelled the same smell everyone else did and probably had more than a few awkward glances thrown her way.
But she kept at it. She did good things until they became habits, and she kept at the habits until they became joys.
Together we can do the same.
So, let this be a challenge for you as it is for me. Afterall, it's precisely in these times where we grow the most.
“Do not be afraid. Do not be satisfied with mediocrity. Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” (St. John Paul II)
Jon Leonetti is the author of two books entitled - Mission of the Family and Your God Is Too Boring. He currently travels the country giving keynote presentations and parish missions. Learn more by visiting jonleonetti.com
The Live Greater Foundation exists to encourage ordinary people to live in extraordinary ways. Learn more about their work at livegreaterfoundation.org.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.