Benedictory: Breakfast in bed

On a cold January Sunday morning in Austin, my wife and I woke up wanting bagels — warm and fresh from a local bagel shop near the University of Texas.


On our way there we remembered to take our old newspapers — piles of the Austin American-Statesman and The New York Times — to the recycling dumpster at the University Baptist Church.

The bleak dumpster sat next to a kiosk where Jimmy was hanging out. He’s the sweet-spirited live-in custodian at University Baptist, and he had been removing treacherous beer bottles left half-empty (from the night before) across the width and depth of the parking lot behind that urban church. It sits across a side street from the church we attend, and Kay has worked with Jimmy in their food pantry for more than six years. Since the morning was cold and gray, we were grateful that we could pull up to the dumpster before getting out.  “Morning, Jimmy!” Kay said cheerfully, as I was throwing the first pile of papers into a square hole on the side of the dumpster.

“Hey!” someone yelled from inside. I looked in to see a young, bearded man wearing a hooded sweatshirt and covered up to his chest in old newspapers. “How ya doin’!” I blurted out awkwardly. It was the same greeting many of us often use when we meet one another in a hallway or on a sidewalk.  “How ya doin’,” I will say. “How ya doin’,” you will respond.  It’s a greeting more than an inquiry. Few conversations transpire from such a greeting. Without thinking, I had said it to him. “How ya doin’!”

He took me literally. “How do you think I’m doing?” he answered. “I’m sitting here drinking in a dumpster that I slept in last night!” Two other voices, belonging to bodies still invisible, began laughing at that retort, and the top of the dumpster suddenly lifted to reveal three young guys in hooded sweatshirts, covered in newspapers and passing around a bottle of something amber-colored.

They were amazingly good-natured and forthright. “I’m an alcoholic,” one of them said to me. “This is where we’ve been able to stay pretty warm lately.” The three guys helped me stuff the dumpster full of more newspapers. “It’s okay,” said the alcoholic, “pile it on. Just makes it warmer in here.”

“Have you guys had breakfast?” I asked, and they shook their heads, no.

Kay and I got back into the car, driving in thoughtful silence to the bagel shop. The imponderables and inequities of life were marching across my mind, companioned by a few theological reflections on the human condition. These guys were young enough to be in college. These guys, cleaned up a little, could be handing out bulletins in a few hours at University Baptist or University Presbyterian. These guys could be working at Wal-Mart, or maybe, with a little trouble, behind a cashier’s counter at Wells Fargo. In a world just a little less raw, these guys could be a lot less invisible. They could be sitting in a circle of people committed to working their twelve steps together. They could be something — anything — other than three guys in a dumpster.

Eventually, something else marched across my mind. It didn’t solve anything, and it didn’t bequeath unto me any bright new idea for how I might “fix” these guys. What it did do was remind me that the heart of God bends toward all who suffer. It was a favorite prayer from Søren Kierkegaard:

“Thou, who didst once wander on earth, leaving footprints which we should follow; Thou, who still from Thy heaven dost look down upon each wanderer, dost strengthen the weary, encourage the despondent, lead back the erring, comfort the striving; Thou who also at the end of day shalt return to judge whether each person individually has followed Thee: our God and our Saviour, let Thine example stand clearly before the eyes of our soul to disperse the mists; strengthen us that unfalteringly we may keep this before our eyes; that we by resembling and following Thee may … be brought to eternal happiness hereafter with Thee.”

This is not adequate by itself, but it’s where every redemptive act on behalf of others starts: the awareness that God does indeed look upon each wanderer, does indeed strengthen the weary and encourage the despondent. So may it be, in this difficult time, that we, at the very least, remember forgotten people in bleak dumpsters — or forgotten people cleaning out their desks while a Pinkerton stands at the office door, or forgotten people loading up the family and driving away from a house they can no longer afford — for we have an Example who encourages us to stand alongside them.

We didn’t do enough on that morning. All we did was take them bagels and juice bottles.  When Kay gave Jimmy his, he stepped out of his kiosk and walked around to the dumpster. “How ’bout this, guys!  Breakfast in bed!”

Everybody laughed. Then we drove away.

Theodore J. Wardlaw is president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.