Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Acid Test

The term, "the acid test" has been around since the days of the early gold prospectors. They needed a way to determine if the metal they found was real gold or some other metal. So, they would mark the metal with nitric acid, which would melt other metals; gold, not so much. That term came to mean the way by which someone would know if something was genuine or not - from merchandise to someone's promises or beliefs. 

I got to thinking about this expression this morning as the face of this one person came into my mind, someone to whom some people react one way while others react the opposite way.

I first met Joseph in the late 1990s. He's an itinerant - a man who chooses to be homeless. He has a "home base" - the home of a relative in a different province - but he only goes there once in a while to catch up on his mail. Most of the time, no matter what the season, he walks and sometimes hitch-hikes from place to place.  He has a full beard, wears layer upon layer of clothing (because there's no other place to put it) and smells of spruce, wood smoke, and sweat. He makes no apologies for his appearance or his lifestyle. He sleeps in the woods, sometimes in a sleeping bag and sometimes not. 

It's intriguing to see the reactions of different people to this man. The first time I saw him, I was a receptionist at a church office. He walked into the office one day in 1998. My immediate impression was that he was a homeless man in his mid-fifties, in need of a bath, a good meal and a change of clothes.  There was something about him, though - something in his eyes, which contradicted what my sense of smell was telling me. My boss at the time, a wonderful pastor, caught sight of him and came out to greet him warmly. I decided to watch him, talk to him, and get to know him a bit better. 
Taken at Picadilly Circus, London.
Thanks to photographer Mantas Ruzveltas
for this photo, "Homeless Man" - obtained at

Over the course of the next week, as he used the woods behind the church to sleep in (with the pastor's permission of course!) I learned that he loved his life, that he enjoyed country and western music (well, nobody's perfect), that he was a diabetic, and that he had the most gentle, humble character you would ever want to meet. I instinctively knew that if I ever needed anyone to look after my preschool children, I could trust him implicitly to guard them with his life. 

I began to look forward to his visits; he was always so full of joy, so content with his chosen lifestyle, so grateful for every bit of help offered to him, and so accepting of others. About once or twice a year he would show up, stay a few days and then move on. Whenever he did, he'd stop for a church service on a Sunday morning. He'd usually sit at the back, close to the door, so that he could slip to and from the washroom unnoticed. It was there that I noticed the varied reactions to his presence. They were much like my original impression had been - except that they were a bit more (how shall I put this nicely? oh never mind) "in your face."  Some reactions were downright visceral; they were clearly repulsed by this man and got as far away from him as possible. 

Many of these people are the first to attend prayer vigils and go to spiritual retreats, talk about the glory days, and tell others exactly what they believe. 

But Joseph is the acid test  -  his very existence challenges people and he isn't even aware of it; he just is who he is. Yet the challenge hangs in the air, "Do you really believe what you say you believe?"

A few months ago, as winter melted into spring, I found myself wondering where Joseph was, if he was still out there tramping the roads and touching lives with his uniqueness. 

And then one Sunday morning recently, I saw him - sitting by himself in the back near the door. His hair and beard were more gray; his face was more gaunt, but it was him. He was beaming, basking in the simple but profound pleasure of good music and shelter from the rain. When the service was over, I rushed over to where he'd been sitting, but he was gone. Disappointment settled on me like a wet blanket. I made my way back to my seat and began to pick up my purse and other items.

Then I turned and saw him, not ten feet away! He'd been in the washroom (most likely) and was coming up to the front to talk to the pastor and ask for a drive. My eyes misted over; what a beautiful soul. I shook hands with him and was delighted that he remembered me - his grip was a little weaker, but still firm. He was wobbling a bit with age and the ravages of life on the road - but it was the Joseph I remembered. His eyes were still as bright, and his smile as ready as it always was. 

Given the rainy day, the pastor asked a young man (a student interning at the church) to drive Joseph to where he needed to go next - across town - and I wondered if yet another generation would come to appreciate the inner beauty of this simple man ... and pass the acid test. 

I sure hope so.

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