You Never Know…

The coffee shop is not far from the church.  They happen to serve very good iced tea and a phenomenal blend of hot tea they call Jasmine Fancy Black.  I sometimes feel like I’m ordering the tea-equivalent of Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘n Fruity, but it’s worth the marginal embarrassment for the amazing aroma and flavor of that tea!  

When I go in early on Sunday morning, I’m always  a little self-conscious.  I’m in my clerical and collar, and the employees in this place are all very friendly, but I suspect not many of them find themselves in church very often these days.  The Sunday morning girl is very pleasant.  We’ve discussed Paul Simon’s music, which she’s had playing a few weeks in a row.  I am conscious of the responsibility I bear when wearing the uniform of a Lutheran pastor.  Perhaps that’s why I only wear it for a few hours on Sunday morning.  Whether I should wear it more often is a debate I often have in the safety of my head.
She’s talking to someone else as she gets my order this morning.  As I round the corner to doctor my iced tea to a greater sweetness level, I smile at the gentleman.  Wiry, with dreadlocks, dressed in comfortable pants and shirt.  He meets my gaze and we smile in greeting.  As I’m pouring the last of the sugar into my tea and stirring, he comes over to alter his own drink.  
“Everybody else is taking today off and you’re just getting ready to go to work,” he observes.
I chuckle, “Yes, this is my Friday afternoon.”  We laugh politely.  
“I’m a street musician,” he offers.  “So I play every day in the evenings.  Down on State Street, in front of the World Market.”  
There’s that moment of panic in the depths of my head, as I size up the situation and the man.  His clothing is fine but not fancy, presentable but not pressed.  He’s admitted to being a street musician.  Does that mean he’s homeless, too?  Is this going to be an elaborate workup for a pitch for a few bucks?  There are all sorts of possible warning flags that go up.  The desire to run, to politely excuse, to move on to understandably Important Things is almost overwhelming.  
But he’s willing to engage.  And the girl behind the counter who is willing to talk with me about how Paul Simon really sounds awful compared to 40 years ago is probably listening in.  What do the two of them expect from a middle-aged white pastor?  What excuse are they looking for, what assumptions do they have ready to confirm?
I turn my body to face the man, leaning against the counter casually, resisting the temptation to slide my hand into my pocket to fish out my car keys.  “What instrument do you play?”  There’s no need to end the conversation yet.  Isn’t this part of who I am called to be, the one who is hospitable even when it’s not my turf?  The one who is willing to engage despite the cultural warning flags?  And if I don’t, how can I expect anyone else to?
He plays the djembe and seems pleasantly surprised I know what that is.  We discuss how I’ve played around with them before, but that it couldn’t be called playing proper, not in any actual musical sense of the word.  He shares that he likes to play later at night, after 9 pm when the stores are closed and it’s just the people out looking for a good time.
“A lot of them are drunk,” he explains, which isn’t necessarily surprising to me, having wandered the streets at that hour once or twice, “but I’m not.  I spend my time out in nature, absorbing positive energy.  And then that’s what I bring there.  I think that’s what people pick up on, even more than the drumming.  I love being able to interact with them, and really show how we have to be tolerant of all different types of people.”  Is that a veiled poke?  Is he looking for a response?  Is he calling out what my collar and shirt represent, seeing if I’ll take the bait and step up onto the soapbox?  Do I respond?  Clarify?  Correct?  Rebuke?  
“My name is Paul,” I offer along with my hand.  
“I’m Naki,” he says as we shake in parting.  It’s not a long conversation.  I haven’t shared the Gospel with this man, and I’ll undoubtedly wrestle with that for the next few hours and days.  But I pray that what I’ve offered to Naki as well as to the girl behind the counter is a witness of love.  Of respect.  Of being willing to not judge Naki by what he is wearing or what he does for a living or even his philosophical or theological views.  But being willing to see in him and in her a child of God worthy of the dignity of a handshake and a conversation.  It is not the Gospel, but hopefully it is love.  And hopefully that love is one piece of the Creator’s puzzle that is this man’s life, and that the presence of that piece in his life will make it possible for someone else to share the Gospel with him more directly.
Perhaps even me.  It probably has been too long since I’ve walked State Street after 9pm.  I hear the music is good.  

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