“What do you do with a pint of misery?”
When John asked us this question, we were sitting on the sidewalk outside of the ARCH, the downtown homeless shelter in Austin, Texas. The ARCH had closed its doors for the night, and we were among those who would have to find another place to sleep. Behind us, an argument was mounting, finally erupting in a full-blown fight, one combatant kicking the other in the face. The security guard had conveniently vanished. John eyed the brawl warily, then turned back to us. He was in his late forties or early fifties, lean and brown from the sun. As he spoke, he crouched toward us, blue eyes looking directly into our own.
“You go down to that University of Texas, where they know it all, and you ask them.” John swung his arm wide, gesturing to all the men and women crowded on the sidewalk, “These people have known nothing but misery most of their lives. Ask them what to do with it –with even a pint of misery?”
I had no answer for his stark question, and so I looked from John to Steven, my fiancé, who has worked for and with the homeless for years. Steven simply nodded, then, noting John’s frame and posture, asked, “Were you an athlete?” John said yes, he had been a football player in west Texas, years before. Soon, he was telling how he came from Odessa to the streets of Austin.
While they talked, I wondered what I would have said to John had I been alone, had I been there without Steven. I had no answer for this question either. In fact, it occurred to me that without Steven, I wouldn’t be outside the ARCH at all. I would be back in Alabama, tranquilly preparing for a normal week of school. I would be sitting in my office at the university, where the terrible question, “What do you do with a pint of misery?” might remain safely conceptual.
But I was not in my office. I was here, sharing a “street retreat” with Steven and several others from around Austin. Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which employs Steven, hosts the retreat, and the goal is simple: to live on the streets for a day or more, seeking the face of Christ.
I was already footsore and hungry before I began to wonder, “How will I know when I see his face? What sign will reveal that Christ is here?” There are a thousand answers to such a question, but that night, I only needed one. When you look into the face of Jesus, he often asks a question that turns your world upside down. Christ’s baffling queries fill the gospels. When his family comes to see him, he asks, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” radically linking kinship to obedience, rather than to blood (Matthew 12:48). When a man asks how to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells a story that discredits pious prejudices and exalts mercy. “Who of these was a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?…Go then and do likewise” (Luke 10:36). Knowing Simon betrayed him in his hour of need, the risen Christ asks, “Do you love me?” (John 21:17), and then makes this humbled, failed disciple the rock upon which the church is built. None of these questions or answers made sense to the world that crucified Jesus. To many ears, they are still hard sayings, shattering certainties.
And so, I knew I was seeing Christ’s face when I heard John ask a question I could not answer. What do you do with a pint of misery? It haunted me as I fell asleep that night–curled up on the edge of a parking lot–and found me early the next morning. Steven, his friend Alan, and I had risen well before sunrise and found a coffee shop. As we enjoyed the consolation of hot coffee and tea, another homeless man approached us. Perhaps because we carried backpacks and looked far grubbier than the rest of the clientele, he saw us as his people. His face was bandaged but still bleeding, his arms covered in red and black marker like some kind of self-inflicted stigmata. We invited him to sit with us, and for the next half hour he did, spilling words as incoherent as the writing on his arms.
Unlike John, this man had no hard edge or argument. His words were a jumble of pain and fear–a heart condition, demonic temptation, attacks in the night, visions of the end times–and yet, again and again, he would return to the name of Jesus, the only anchor against the tempest of his words.
I had no balm for this man’s agony, and so I did the only thing I could in that moment: I listened. As I strained to catch the mumbled words, I thought about Steven’s talk with John the night before. Steven had not evaded John’s question — what to do with another man’s sorrow–but had asked to see more of it. He had asked John about himself, and his life, returning the man’s challenge with an act of loving curiosity and concern. He listened to John’s story, accepting the glimpses of misery–addiction, depression, divorce–that John was willing to show us. Steven did not turn away.
As our morning guest rose to leave us, he asked me my name. When I said, “Bethany,” he nodded. “I know that place, and I have been like Lazarus–dead and raised again.” With that, he left us.
When I move to Austin, my friends and neighbors will come from these streets. They may be men like John, and they may be men like this latter-day Lazarus from the coffee shop. Most of them have known so much pain, and I, who have known so little, am afraid I will be too stunned, too scared, to know how to love. How can I learn but by looking at the wounded face of Christ?
When we began the retreat, Steven did not say, “We’re going to plot a solution that will answer all these problems. “ Nor did he say, “We’re going to find someone to rescue.” Rather, he told me, “We’re going to seek the face of Christ.” And so we did, and when we found Christ, he asked, as he has asked for two thousand years, if we would take and drink from the cup that is filled with his “blood of the covenant, […] poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27).
What do you do with a pint of misery? You take it, and you drink.