Dirty Feathers

Churches that sit alongside busy interstates get a lot of needy visitors, and the one where I worked was no exception.  We met all kinds of people, like the construction worker whose job just ended, leaving him without a paycheck to cover his rent.

We saw single mothers with kids spread out in age from nursery school to high school, who ran out of milk and peanut butter and diapers. Sometimes a guy in an old car came by, saying he needed gas money to another state, where his family would take him in.  Sometimes we met scary people whose eyes were glazed from drugs or drink, and it was hard to figure out what they even wanted.

But there was only one George.

George showed up one spring day, when the dogwoods were scattering their creamy petals all over the church parking lot like confetti in a parade.  The wind was blowing, and when he opened the door to the church office, we felt it sweep in with him, a kind of restless, unsettled wind that wasn’t winter and wasn’t spring, just that moody, changeable, impulsive energy that pulses between the seasons.

There was something off about him, although we weren’t sure at first what it was.  He stopped by the first time to ask us to heat up his cup of instant soup in our microwave. His pupils were huge and dark, and he talked non-stop, and so fast, we couldn’t answer his questions before he was saying something else. Some of what he said was nonsense.  He’d been to another church that was going to buy him a ticket to go to Hawaii, he said.  He had friends that let him stay at their house, but made him sleep outside.  He knew all about the Bible, but he didn’t want to take the one we offered when he left.

The next time he came back, he asked us for shoes.  Sure enough, the sneakers he had on were too small for his feet. Our associate pastor got a new pair for him, and he was on his way again.

In a few days, he was back, this time with a Styrofoam box of leftovers he had probably scavenged from a garbage can, and we let him sit in the office to eat it with utensils from our employee kitchen. He rambled about how 29 policemen were after him with drawn guns.

He was intimidating and scary, because we never knew what he was going to say, and once we had to tell him to stop cursing or leave. He could be insistent, too, asking over and over for the same things—more shoes, although he had a new pair now. We gave him food when we could, but after many visits, the pastor told him he had to limit his visits, because we had to help a lot of other people, too.  And he couldn’t just come in and disrupt our work, muttering under his breath and swearing.

One day he came in as summer was approaching.  The days were getting longer, but George was still wearing an old nylon coat he’d had on since the first day we met him. It was made of black nylon, quilted into diamond shapes, and it was ripped in places. Dirty, broken feathers fell out as he walked, leaving a trail of cheap duck feathers in his wake.

I helped him when he came in that afternoon, asking once again to have some soup microwaved.  While we waited for the timer to beep, I found some duct tape and tried to patch the holes in his jacket. He shrugged and told me not to worry, the weather was getting warmer anyway.  The soup was ready, so he sat down to eat.

Our pastor came in, and George started ranting about some wrong he’d suffered. He asked again for that ticket to Hawaii. Our pastor listened and tried to calm him down, but George got more agitated. He shook his dreadlocks and told us there was glass in his hair, that those 29 policemen had shot at him, shattering his windows.

His voice got louder until the pastor had to ask him to go outside. This time, George got mad. He threated to send somebody to hurt the pastor.  I’ll get so-and-so to come back and knock you up-side the head, he said.  George said this to the pastor who had found a shelter to take him in, although he refused to go. He said this to the pastor who had given him shoes and food. Finally the pastor said, you can’t come back.

I want a ticket to Hawaii, George insisted. The pastor shook his head. Leave now.

George might have been crazy; he might have been high. But he knew he’d crossed the line. He never came back.

Oddly, I missed him. That afternoon, I saw another feather on the floor from George’s ragged jacket, and it made me think about angels’ wings, and how we were all like George, in a way. He was just a man wearing a ragged, ugly coat, and we are all just men and women wearing the ugly rags of sin. But underneath, we all bear the marks of our Maker. Underneath, we still have a few feathers. They may be tattered and torn and dirty, but they are there.  They are the remnants of heaven in all of us.

There is this, too:  who doesn’t want to go to Hawaii? Who doesn’t want to find Paradise?