Yesterday afternoon, about 1:30, I realized that I was really hungry, so I decided to call in a grilled chicken salad order at the Red, Hot & Blue restaurant down the street from the church. It was a rainy afternoon. Not pouring-down rain, but what I call a “dribbling rain”–the kind that if you move fast enough, you can make it from car to house without getting too wet. I parked the car, and made a dash to the covered walk that led to the restaurant.
As I passed by an open stairwell that leads to the second floor of an office building, I heard someone say, “Well, whadda ya know?” I turned, and there, sitting on about the fourth step, was Dan (not his real name). I was startled, because I think this may be the first time Dan has ever initiated a conversation with me. You see, Dan is a paranoid schizophrenic. He is homeless. He refuses to take meds. For part of the month–while his disability income lasts–he sleeps in a motel room. The rest of the month? Who knows. An elevator that’s empty overnight. The woods. We don’t know for sure. But we know that Dan belongs to St. Philip’s. Or maybe we belong to him.
On Sundays, Dan finds his way to the parish hall, where he knows he will find a hot cup of coffee, plenty of sugar to put in the coffee, and a high likelihood of some sugary snack. Oh, and there is a baby grand piano in the conference room. It’s hard to say whether the most compelling draw is the hot coffee or the piano. Dan plays the piano, and perhaps playing music drives the voices out of his head for a while.
He plays beautifully–as if he has been trained. Dan is very intelligent. He was raised Episcopalian. His father and grandfather were musicians. Now, his family can no longer deal with him. Frankly, no one can do much with him, because he won’t take meds, he refuses to get into housing (“I don’t want people taking my money”–and don’t bother arguing that he hands someone money to stay in a motel room. . .sigh), and even in the worst of winter storms, he refuses to go to Winterhaven, our local homeless shelters in different churches. Sometimes he gets out a pen and scribbles higher math equations on Post-It notes. Amazing.
But almost every Sunday, we can count on Dan playing the piano. Occasionally, his routine gets disrupted. Sometimes there’s an adult forum in that conference room. And for eight weeks this fall, we had to worship IN the parish hall while a new roof was being installed in our worship space. The piano got moved out into the main room, and so Dan sat on the back row at both services, hoping for a chance to play his piano for a few minutes.
One Sunday, I was in a smaller, adjacent room leading an Adult Inquirers’ Class. We were having a few minutes of silent prayer–something that in the best of circumstances is a challenge for most folks. We had just settled well into the silence and I was enjoying the solitude and quiet. All of a sudden, I heard a riff on the piano, played with gusto, that sounded strangely like the introduction to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Yep. That’s what that was. I giggled into the quiet, and several others joined me. Obviously they recognized the tune too.
You never know what Dan is going to play. It could be jazz or blues. It could be variations on a rock song. But somehow I think it’s an offering to God. It’s the only one Dan can afford. Yes, playing is soothing to his tortured mind. But it is also a gift. I walk into Wyatt Hall to ask the sexton something, and I hear music drifting out of the conference room. I find myself smiling. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” indeed.
God has given so many gifts. The cutting edge to some of those is perhaps a double-edged sword of mental illness/brilliance. And I pray for those who suffer from schizophrenia. I do not understand, but I also don’t hear the voices that drown out reality as I know it.
Yesterday, as I entered the restaurant, I turned back. “Dan, have you eaten today?”
“No ma’am.” (He is always polite.)
“Where are you staying?”
“Oh, I’m just walking up and down the street.”
I went on in. Then I remembered that once before, I had bought some Brunswick stew for him. As the owner greeted me with a hug (yes, I’m a frequent flyer in that restaurant), I asked him if I could add something to my order. I ordered a bowl of Brunswick stew. Then the thought occurred to me that Dan might very well be halfway down the block with his variety of plastic bags. I poked my head back out.
“I’m getting you some Brunswick stew. Don’t go anywhere yet.”
“Oh. Okay, ma’am.”
When I emerged from the restaurant, I handed him a bag that had a big bowl of hot Brunswick stew.
“There’s a spoon and napkins in there too,” I noted.
“Well, thank you, ma’am,” he said, and opened the bag hungrily.
I went back to the church and ate my grilled chicken salad, musing that since I am trying not to eat wheat these days, I really should have given him my little loaf of bread too. But maybe RH & B put one in the bag–I hadn’t checked.
Bread. Salad. Stew. For the first time in a day, at 2:00 p.m., a homeless man has a hot bowl of stew. And on Sunday, maybe I’ll get to hear his fingers move up the piano keys as he begins “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
All things come of thee, O Lord. And of thine own have we given thee. Play on, brother. Amen.