A couple of weeks ago, I discovered a man asleep on an outdoor bench by the parking lot of St. Paul’s. He was sweaty, dirty, unshaven and unkempt. I decided he was homeless and was pretty sure that he was waiting for me. Well, not waiting for me exactly, but waiting for “the pastor.”
I touched his shoulder. He stirred.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“I need a bus ticket. I have $65.00 and I’m trying to get to Oklahoma City.”
He had a gentle voice and spoke with an accent. I was pretty sure he was Mexican.
Homeless people come to St. Paul’s on a fairly regular basis looking for help. We have “regulars.” We also see our share of hucksters and scam artists. Trying to figure out who is a scam artist and who is not and how to respond to genuine needs is often no easy matter. That we have to deal with hucksters and scam artists at all is annoying. I know it colors how I approach nearly all those who come for help. I begin with suspicion. That the man in front of me admitted to having $65.00 of his own was a good indicator that he was not a huckster.
I will also confess that when someone asks for help to buy a bus ticket, I am often inclined to say yes. A bus ticket means that they will be leaving town. It is a quick fix. Somewhere, someone else will have to deal with him or her. I won’t, that is, if I buy the ticket and see them to the bus
“Do you want to take a bus today?” I asked.
“Si, if I can get one.”
“Let’s go,” I said.
I opened the passenger side of my car for him.
“Do you need to use a restroom before we go,” I asked.
“No, I’m okay.”
We got into the car. I headed toward the local Greyhound Station a few blocks away. It’s not a station really. It’s the dispatch office of the local taxi company. Greyhound busses stop there on their way up the east coast of Florida from Miami. There is a bench that seats two outside. Otherwise, people sit on the curb or stand around in the heat as they wait for the bus.
“Com se llama?” I asked as we drove south on Federal Highway.
“Why are you going to Oklahoma, Juan?....Por que Oklahoma?”
“To pick tomatoes…It’s tomato season in Oklahoma….I came here to pick beans, but the season is almost over. It’s not been very good. I didn’t make much.”
He had tried to get travel assistance from an agency in West Palm Beach that he had been told was supposed to help farm workers. He hadn’t been successful.
“I just want to get to Oklahoma where I can work and make some money.”
As I pulled into the parking lot, a Greyhound bus was already parked in front. The driver was checking the tickets of passengers preparing to board. Juan and I hurried into the office.
“I want to buy him a ticket to Oklahoma City,” I said to man behind the counter handing him my credit card.
“What’s his full name?”
“What’s your full name?” I asked Juan. He said his name and spelled it out for the agent.
“Tell him to ask the driver to wait while I do this,” the agent said to me.
Juan ran outside and began speaking to the driver.
“Does he have any luggage?” the agent asked. Juan had a plastic garbage bag slung over his shoulder. I didn’t think he would want to check it. I stuck my head out the door.
“Juan, you don’t have any luggage, do you?” I asked.
“Just this,” he said pointing to the bag.
The driver looked at me and said, “Tell him I don’t have any seats. The bus is full. He’s going to have to stand all the way to West Palm Beach.”
“Is that okay?” I asked Juan. He shrugged his shoulders. I went in and finished paying for the ticket. The agent turned the credit card voucher toward me to sign.
“My card information isn’t on the ticket, is it?” I asked, just to be sure.
“Nope, just on the receipt,” he assured me passing me the thick booklet of transfers that Juan would need to use to get him to Oklahoma City along with my credit card and receipt.
I went outside to Juan.
“Use your $65.00 for food,” I said to him. He took the ticket, looked me in the eye, smiled and shook my hand.
“Thank you, Padre”
“You’re welcome. God bless you,” I said turning back toward my car.
As I was pulling out, I waved to Juan, sweaty, dirty, unshaven and unkempt with a garbage bag of his possessions slung over his shoulder. He was about to board the bus where he would have to stand until he reached Palm Beach on his journey to Oklahoma City where he wanted to pick tomatoes and make some money.
I felt some sadness for him. I also felt thankfulness for the work he does and some guilt, too. As I drove away from the Greyhound Bus Station I thought about the plight of migrant farm workers and how much we, we, exploit them. I thought about how much hostility and prejudice our society directs toward Juan and so many other people like him even as we continue to eat the food they pick for us.
In the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer there is prayer for Labor Day. It reads, in part, Almighty God, you have so linked our lives with other lives that all we do affects for good or ill all other lives; So guide us in the work we do, that we may not do it for self alone, but for the common good; and as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work…
In our home, we usually have a barbecue on Labor Day and say that prayer before we eat. As I say the prayer for Labor Day this year and prepare to bite into a grilled hamburger topped with a juicy ripe tomato , I will think of Juan and give thanks for his labor and still feel a little guilty. Of course, Juan won’t be aware of any of this. On Monday, he’ll most likely be in the fields of Oklahoma picking tomatoes until it is time to move on to the next crop.