The Mirror on the Corner:
Coffee + Eggs, Cheese, Bacon and Brioche
I had just dropped off Jack, The Cat at the Humane Society for his orchiectomy. On my way to work, I dropped by Panera Bread. They know me, there; I’m a regular customer.
On the nearby corner, Steve was standing with his sign, on which was written something nice about Jesus that drew unkind glares from passing motorists. As I passed him, I thought how miserable he must feel, standing in the windy, rainy 57º F morning. He had no umbrella, and, despite his big, new-looking winter coat, he seemed chilled-through. No doubt, it had been a cold night. I wondered if he was as hungry as I was, and resolved to bring him a sandwich and a coffee.
As I entered Panera, a woman was coming out with her hands full — big bags of food, a catering order, maybe. I opened the door and my umbrella for her, and walked her out to her car. We walked awkwardly, not just because sharing an umbrella with a stranger is, itself, a bit awkward, but because of the bulky bags and the fact that I was on FaceTime, saying, “Good morning,” to my son.
My son asked me who my friend was, and I told him she was a stranger I was helping out to her car, because her hands were full and it was raining. He scolded me for “going with a stranger,” as I crossed the parking lot on my way back inside. I chuckled, because he wasn’t wrong. I told him it was okay, because I’m an adult and can protect myself, and that I was very proud of him for learning about “stranger danger.” Sitting down in a quiet corner, I finished my call with my son, feeling that familiar mixture of happiness and sadness that comes from having him in my life yet not being able to be with him every day.
Just as I got up to order, I remembered Steve. Suddenly, I felt this urge to go out to him, to bring him in to share breakfast with me. So, that’s exactly what I did.
When he ordered my favorite breakfast sandwich, I smiled, irrationally happy that we were truly sharing the same meal. When our buzzer went off, Steve brought it up to the counter. I handed him his sandwich, and we walked back to our table.
He must have been self-conscious, because he said, “I’m walkin’ funny, because my feet are frozen and soaked through.” No wonder he was chilled, in spite of the big coat. Later, he told me he had just received the coat from someone, as a gift, yesterday. His eye is on the sparrows, I thought to myself.
I said grace. We sat together and ate. We talked — almost entirely about him. He expressed so much loneliness that my eyes filled with tears. He told me about coming home for Thanksgiving and how grateful he was to see his family, again. I told him I could relate to that, as, in 2021, I involuntarily spent Thanksgiving entirely alone, following my divorce; but, this year (2022), I was surrounded by my entire family! Our conversation was surprisingly deep. Steve had a lot to say, actually. For the most part, I listened.
What the Lawyer Learned
Steve joked that he should make a sign that reads: “If you spit at me and miss, you owe me $1.00.”
“I probably shouldn’t joke about that,” he said.
“That’s pretty awful,” I agreed, “You might just be encouraging more people to spit at you.”
“Yeah, but I’m a good dodger!”
We both laughed. Apparently, both lawyers and homeless guys share an appreciation for gallows humor.
Steve said a guy had once thrown $35.00 in quarters at him. He said he was still finding and picking up quarters about two hours later. I felt righteous indignation swell up in me, thinking, That jerk probably justified his cruelty with his “generosity.” What kind of sociopath does that?!
He didn’t have any I.D., he said, because every time he got one, his wallet would get stolen. He had a phone, though, and he was saving money for a bus ticket to see his wife in Florida. He had been riding his bike across the country, but the chain had broken; still, he was worried someone would steal it — a fear to which he gave voice several times over breakfast.
We talked a lot about Jesus. He shared his views on good and evil, love for God and others, forgiveness, and the work God had been doing in his life to separate him from his addictions and his attachments to materialism.
Steve is only eight years older than me. We’re from the same hometown. My father knew him, and, when he was younger, had done some legal work for him. At a deep, human level, I felt a connection, a genuine care and concern for him.
Obviously, as he wandered, Steve had learned quite a bit of Scripture. Though he didn’t understand everything he read, clearly, the messages about God’s love for us and the importance of loving and being kind to one another had made a difference in Steve’s life. He made reference to James, chapter 2, and talked about how it seemed the only people who treated him kindly were “church people.”
We talked about why many people treated him badly, and I offered the suggestion that, when people didn’t look at him, maybe the reason they didn’t seem to see him is because God was using him as a mirror, reflecting back to others what was most important to them.
To those who truly value love for God and others above selfish attachments to their own pleasure and comfort, Steve reflects something divine, a fellow human being, worthy of love, acceptance, and care. Others see, in Steve, a reflection of their worst impulses, their selfishness, and their fear of losing everything (and being cast out and rejected for the crime of having nothing in a society that values possessions over people). Of course, the way people treat Steve corresponds with how they feel about themselves when they look in the mirror of his face, seeing the reflection of their own souls.
I told Steve that what he was doing by simply standing there on the corner, being himself was an invaluable public service. I believe that. I believe we need beggars. We need homeless people. We need wandering mendicants and panhandlers. We need these spiritual mirrors to remind us that we all are born naked, will die naked, and that only the grace and mercy of God and the love of our fellow man separates us from the fate of those who struggle to survive a life of poverty.
Works of Mercy
Steve making reference to the second chapter of the New Testament book of James felt like God speaking, through Steve, into my life, assuring me that what I was doing was not coming from me but, rather, through me. I was not feeding Steve or buying him coffee, but God was, through me.
My faith was brought to life, in this moment, simply by my openness and willingness to be used by God to bless another person. Just as it says, in James:
James 2:14–26 — “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
But some one will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you foolish fellow, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead. (emphasis mine)
All I did was remain open to the soft, gentle stirring of God’s spirit within me, and respond when I felt moved towards an act of mercy, kindness, and compassion. God blessed Steve through me. I was just an instrument, a tool; none of it came from me or happened because of me. In fact, for much of the time Steve and I spent together, I kind-of felt a little like a third-party observer.
The Holy Roman Catholic Church teaches Christians to practice both Spiritual Works of Mercy and Corporal Works of Mercy. While the two types of Works of Mercy can be — and often are — practiced apart from one another, there is a special beauty that attends opportunities to practice them together.
Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, and giving alms to the poor — all corporal works of mercy — can be accomplished alongside spiritual works of mercy such as comforting the sorrowful or instructing the ignorant (i.e., being “open to talking with others about our beliefs”). In fact, corporal works of mercy often open the door to opportunity to administer spiritual works of mercy.
After breakfast, Steve and I got in my car, went across the street to Wal-Mart, and picked up a new pair of thermal-rated, water resistant boots. Right before we went in, I called my dad, and gave him and Steve a chance to catch up for a couple minutes. Of course, Dad remembered him, and they had a brief, pleasant chat. As we drove back to Steve’s corner, I felt a pang of worry that someone might steal his new boots off him. I decided to trust God with that, and let it go. If God wanted Steve to get new boots, He would make sure he got to keep them. I dropped him off by his bicycle, which no one had stolen.
We exchanged goodbyes and “God bless yous,” and Steve went back to his work as a spiritual mirror, reflecting to each of his customers the truth about themselves.
As I drove home, I thought about all this and was filled with a profound sense of gratitude, not just for the opportunity to practice the Works of Mercy but for the capacity to bless others as God has blessed me. I was grateful for what I had seen in the mirror on the street, because, in Steve’s face, I had been given an opportunity to see so much! I had seen Steve — really seen him, as a person — as well as myself and I had seen God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy, too.
In that moment, I realized that I was not the only one practicing Works of Mercy. Perhaps without realizing it, Steve was also instructing the ignorant, by being instrument God used to reveal to me more about the reality and depth of His love and faithfulness, His divine mercy and compassion, and what it really means to lead others closer to Him.