Last year, on the eve of the Feast of St. Francis, I left our church building late. The next day, the building would be alive with people who brought their animals in for a blessing, cats and dogs and mice and snakes crowding the pews with their humans. Tonight, however, had been the Transitus service, commemorating the passage of St. Francis from his earthly life into the arms of God.
I wasn’t planning on coming the next day; I was scheduled to take the GRE instead. Ironic, to skip church so you can take a standardized test and apply to graduate school for the purpose of being a Bible scholar. Some of the other parishioners who knew about tomorrow’s appointment were shocked that I’d come to the evening’s service instead of studying. But I felt like I’d already put in my effort on this, and now it was up to God. So why not spend the evening listening to Scripture, remembering a beloved saint, and revisiting why I was doing this in the first place?
No one offered me a ride home that night, so I slunk out the side entrance of the church, intending to slip home in the shadows. But I’d forgotten my eye-catching attire, the hand-sewn quasi-Franciscan robe I’d inherited from someone in our community who had passed away. I could never walk down the street wearing such a thing without comment, and tonight was no exception.
“Hey!” said a voice from the darkness. “You’re dressed up like a monk, aren’t you?”
I turned around to see a man maybe in his late fifties or early sixties sitting in a folding chair with his meager possessions in front of our church building (a not uncommon sight which doesn’t endear us to some of our neighbors). He was smiling, seemed friendly, and suddenly I was inclined to talk to him.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m dressed like St. Francis because we’re celebrating his feast day tomorrow.”
“I knew it,” he said triumphantly. “This church of yours is a good place. Your pastor gave me one of these Catholic Bibles. Now I know the Bible backward and forward, but this has books I’ve never read before, and I can’t wait to get down to studying them.”
“So you like reading the Bible?”
I was just being polite, but his face lit up at the question. He started telling me what he read in the Bible that brought him joy – leaping from page to page of the great Story with ease, shining light on connections between Law and Gospel.
I found myself nodding and echoing things he said, all but saying “Amen.” This strange man, with his days worth of stubble, sitting in his folding chair surrounded by all his worldly possessions, was speaking encouragement to my soul.
At one point he paused and appeared to size me up. “You get what I’m saying, don’t you? You don’t think I’m crazy?”
I shook my head. “I think you make more sense than almost anyone else I know.”
He smiled and extended his hand. “I’m Ernie. Nice to meet you.”
From there, Ernie told me some of his own story. He said he’d been caring for his elderly mom for years back east and had decided to leave her in the care of other relatives so he could travel and do other work for awhile. But when he’d gotten here, there was little work, and his savings had rapidly dwindled until he could no longer afford to get back home, then until he had no place to live.
He said he couldn’t ask money from his mother, since she lived on a fixed income, and anyway he was sure he would soon figure out how to get a ticket back. He said he was trying to make his way further north, where he was sure more work could be found.
He told me this without a trace of self-pity and didn’t ask anything from me. Finally, he fished a picture out of one of his suitcases and showed it to me beaming. “That’s my mom, right there. My best friend.”
“You look like her,” I said. “Same smile.”
I realized I’d been standing there for at least an hour listening to him talk. I’d forgotten about the text the next day. I’d forgotten about everything but the Story God told and this man’s story of his life.
“You’re probably thinking you should head home,” he said, noticing the look on my face. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Rachel.”
“You too, Ernie,” I said. “Thank you. I hope I’ll see you around.” And I walked off into the night, his words still buzzing in my ears, words that tumbled over each other with his passion about the Bible.
I took the test the next day, locked for five hours in a gray room with noise-canceling headphones. I rocked it (well, at least the parts important to my future). I would have liked to have told Ernie, told him about my dream of studying the Bible, but I never saw him again after that night. Maybe he found a way to get where the work was, or even to get back home.
And I didn’t go to graduate school after all – not this year, anyway. I got accepted to my dream school, but didn’t get the financial aid I wanted, and I wasn’t sure whether I could make it work in the big picture of my life. After I deferred my admission I felt mostly numb, but a few weeks after that I cried for days straight, mourning my dream.
But now, when I think about that night I talked to Ernie, I feel more encouraged than ever about my future. I can do what I love – study Scripture and bring it into people’s lives – whether I end up in school or not. Ernie did, armed with almost nothing in this world but his Bible and his mind. He spoke truth to me from a humble folding chair in the shadows of the street, and I’ll never forget it.