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We're all panhandlers here

By Allen Tysick

O gracious and yet confusing Creator. Since November, I have been panhandling. We need to raise $400,000 so we can build this place, Our Place, for the homeless of Victoria.

So the following true story begins: On Monday I arrived at the Drop-In Centre at 4:30 a.m. It had been a miserable night. The homeless, about two dozen of them, had been in the rain all night and were awaiting my arrival. All of them were soaked. I received a heartfelt "Hi Rev. Al, we're so glad to see you!" as they pushed by me with their shopping carts, bicycles and backpacks. I held the door open as they came in, most of them giving me a hug as they passed by. Once inside, I went to the clothing room and simply emptied six or seven garbage bags of donated, used clothing on the floor.

The conversation, as they rummaged through the pile, went something like this: "Oh, this doesn't fit me. Here, it'll fit you." "This is nice and warm, you can have it. I have enough." This did not surprise me; I find more generosity, kindness and love among the homeless, my Family, than I find almost anywhere else.

Mother Teresa's words come to mind: "You will always know the poor, they are the ones who have no shoes and are offering you a gift."

Those who found something to wear dropped off their dirty, wet clothing right there on the floor in front of them. Naked, they were in full view. Their bruises, cuts, abscesses fully exposed. What struck me was their gauntness -- their skeleton-like figures, draped with infected, rotten skin. Some asked for blankets and got cuddled up and fell asleep at the tables. Others put on the coffee and laid out peanut butter, jam and bread.

Have you ever had the opportunity to watch someone who is really hungry eat? I'm not speaking of the hunger we all experience just before a meal or even the hunger one would experience after not eating all day. No, I'm referring to that hunger one experiences after several days without food -- yes, it happens in Canada every day. I watched as they stuffed the food into their mouths. No time for chewing, the food all over their faces and clothing, in their beards.

My heart was wounded as I thought of my own full cupboard. Canned goods, boxes of cereals and cookies, junk food. Not to mention milk, juice, cream and those Colombian coffee beans for that morning cup of coffee. Then I thought of all the other kitchens in this wealthy city, filled to capacity, and how we will go to the grocery store today to buy more. I thought of the food that will be discarded today in restaurants, grocery stores, department stores and warehouses; the Creator cannot be pleased with our greed. Mother Earth must weep.

I finally had time to sit with my Family in conversation and laughter -- the thing that I enjoy most in my day. I walked out to the courtyard and sat with John. John is a user and abuser of crystal meth. He had his thumb amputated a while back due to an infection that he did not attend to. Now, both of his feet are badly infected while his life, unfortunately, is wrapped around this next fix. He told me that he was trying to see me all day yesterday. I explained to him that I was out panhandling -- begging to keep the doors of this place open. In cleaner, middle-class language, you'd call it fundraising. But I have no accreditation or glossy, gold-lettered plaques adorning my walls. I'm just an old-time church panhandler.

I sat beside John to comfort him, but as happens so often, he comforted me. "How are you, Rev.? You're looking tired," were the first words out of his mouth. "Oh, I'm good," I assured him.

Then for some reason, I told him about my panhandling and my attempt to raise close to half a million dollars. "Just one minute," he said.

Then he began to empty his pockets. Old cigarette butts, crumpled, dirty pieces of paper, an old cookie. And a single quarter. "Here," he said, handing it to me, "it's all I have but it's a good kick start for your panhandling." It was all he had. The biblical story of the widow's gift came to mind.

I'm panhandling for thousands of dollars, but this quarter will be the greatest gift I will receive. Creator, you do confusing things. You do turn the world upside down.

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