As many of you dear readers know, I’m the resident member of Lighthouse who comes from a Muslim background. I spent Ramadan this summer pointedly not fasting. I spent a month generally considered holy taking every opportunity possible to avoid performing the five daily prayers prescribed to Muslims, all because they had become just that to me – a performance. Every act of prayer or worship, every action meant specifically to invoke a reflection of the greatness of God, was done for the benefit of other people. So I stopped. On our regular trips to the Mosque I’d taken to standing outside, waiting for everyone inside to finish.
There’s context for you.
I met a man on one such evening in Oakland, while I was sitting in the driver’s seat of my car with my feet up against the dash. He knocked on the door and the five-year-old in me knew it had to be a cop, ready to sternly ask me why I wasn’t praying. You know. The prayer police. Instead, he wore a jacket at least a size too large and salt and pepper stubble at least a couple days old.
“Asalamo Alai’kum” he said to me through the glass. Peace be upon you. I could tell that the words weren’t familiar to him, but I was after all parked outside a mosque. What did I expect him to say? I threw open the door and jumped out of the car, and then I wondered why I’d done that. I didn’t return the greeting; Instead I said hi and asked him what his name was. He said it was Charles.
He went on to tell me it was the day after his fiftieth birthday, that he’d been evicted from his apartment because the odd jobs he’d been pulling hadn’t been enough to cover his rent. I sighed with all the sympathy I could muster, but I was still wondering why I’d gotten out of the car. In spite of myself, I decided I wanted to believe him. He paused.
“I’m tired, man.” He said finally. I nodded.
“Yeah…” I said. The best response I could come up with.
“I’m tired of people disliking me because I don’t make an income.”
I didn’t have anything for that one. He turned to me, and all of a sudden I could tell that he felt just as uncomfortable as I did, that he didn’t really know what to say, or how to ask what he wanted to ask. He finally looked at his shoes and muttered so low I nearly missed it.
“Hey man, I hate to ask this, but…I’ll wash your car for you.”
I’d run my car through the wash the previous weekend, and it wasn’t a warm night. Besides that though, I had all of five quarters on me – parking meter money. I handed it to him, told him it was alright. He looked at the coins and told me he needed five dollars to get into a shelter that night. He looked to the mosque and asked me if anybody in there might be able to help him, but I knew that by time they were finished praying the shelters would be closed. He told me it was alright, and that there was another mosque a few blocks away that he might be able to try. I told him to get in the car.
This past weekend, at Lighthouse’s City Dive, we spent some time discussing the nature of poverty. One of the major ideas we discussed was that more than anything, poverty can be described as a lack of friendship. We were presented with a hypothetical in which every physical possession we owned were to disappear, and asked how long it would take for us to find food, clothing, shelter. We quickly found that none of them, for any of us, would have taken very long. We each had someone who would feed us, clothe us, take us in. In light of the notion that nothing could confirm a sense of responsibility to service like genuine friendships, we reflected on what that meant for us, how it might be possible, if it were possible to forge such friendships. The tricky thing here is that friendship goes both ways. I found myself thinking about Charles.
As we drove, we talked some more, about politics and the odd jobs he worked when he could. I dropped him off in front of the other mosque that night, and circled the block twice before he ran back to the car. He hadn’t had any luck there, but not because anybody was busy praying. They’d just told him to leave. The shelter was going to be closed in ten minutes. He asked me if I wouldn’t mind taking him to one last place. I agreed, and he gave me some directions.
I took him to the apartment complex garage where he’d stashed his belongings, and he thanked me as he looked around for the security guard for the building. He looked to me sheepishly and told me he knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, but he didn’t have anywhere else. Again, I didn’t know what to say. I told him there were probably exceptions to every rule. He laughed.
That I didn’t understand either. He laughed. But we’d failed. He still wasn’t going to have a place to stay that night. I told him I was sorry, that it wasn’t right, and he shook his head.
“Don’t worry about it, I’ll be alright. I just need to get my stuff.” He turned to go, and I remembered that there was bedding in my trunk. asked him if he could use any of it. He asked for a blanket, shook my hand.
“Thanks again, my friend. God bless you.”
I returned to the mosque to find my family waiting for me to drive them home.
I imagine there are a lot of people out there with stories a little bit like this one. I’m sure there’s nothing novel about it. What I’m less sure of is whether Charles actually thinks of me as a friend. In a way, I wasn’t able to help him. I didn’t manage to feed him, or get him shelter, and he was still willing to use the word and I liked him, even though he didn’t make an income. I’d like to believe he was a little less tired when we parted ways…But whether or not anything came of our little adventure, I was struck by the fact that this all happened outside of a place of worship, and that those inside weren’t able to help at the time.
I’m fond of saying that God is opportunity, and if I say anything in this post I hope its that the opportunities to build friendships can strike anywhere, even if they aren’t always opportunities to help people the way you might expect to. In my case, I believe Charles helped me out more than I may have helped him, because in an hour I think I felt God on the streets of Oakland more than I ever have in a house of prayer.