Mercy on His Soul

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Buster didn’t really like me. I was new to the homeless scene and while he appreciated the food on occasion, he knew I was there to “save people’s souls” and he thought that I was as much use as a fourth leg on a tripod. But what most of the homeless know is that a middle-class pastor is a connection to the outside world, and sometimes that connection is necessary. And this day, Buster really needed me.

It must have been serious because I didn’t see Buster very often. He had a long trek, perhaps two hours, to get to the church, but he was there. After taking a breather, he approached me and said, “We need to talk.” I was a bit mystified because Buster had never needed to “talk” to me before. He talked about me, or at me, but never to me. So we stepped aside into my “office” (the middle of a field) and he said, “It’s about Bill.”

Ah. Bill was Buster’s camp-mate and drinking partner. Bill was an older gentleman, with an emphasis on the gentleman. He was always polite and kind, if a little self-absorbed. He had often showed up to church sober, only to have a seizure in the middle of the service. Over the year I knew him, Bill was gradually losing his sight. At first he was losing his night vision, but it gradually became worse so that Buster was leading him to wherever he needed to go. And after a month this, Buster needed to talk to me about Bill. This can’t be good.

“He’s going crazy. He’ll wake up in the middle of the night, screaming. And he’s always talking to people who aren’t there. He’ll wander off and fall. I’m afraid he’s really going to hurt himself. Could you get him into a hospital?”

“What kind of hospital, Buster?”

“He’s crazy. He needs to be taken care of.”

“Well, I can’t put him in a hospital, but maybe I could talk to him and convince him to go to a hospital to get checked out, and they could make their own decision.”

“Sure, that would be great.”

So I got the directions to their camp (behind-the-store-down-the-street-end-of-the-cul-de-sac-behind-the-wall-next-to-the-ditch) and agreed to seek Bill out at about 8 in the morning.

It took me a minute to find the camp, but the directions were quite accurate. At the end of the wall were three tents, next to the ditch. I did typical camp ettiqute, calling out “Hello!” before I reached the camp.

No response. That was odd because Buster said he’d make sure Bill was there. Perhaps Bill was still asleep, so I approached each of the tents, calling out his name. After that got no response, I called out Buster’s name. Nothing.

I wandered a bit further out. I saw a neat pile of camping gear to one side. Frankly, they kept a nice camp. No piles of trash, and the bathroom spot out of sight. That’s pretty good for a couple alcoholics. My respect for Buster deepened. He really knew how to live on the street. Keep a low profile, keep your camp neat, be polite to neighbors and they’ll leave you alone. And he was helping Bill all day, every day for months. He was rough-spoken, but a good man.

But I was still mystified. Perhaps Bill insisted to go with Buster. I looked around once more and then I saw.

About twenty feet away from the tents was a concrete ditch. And at the bottom of the ditch was a body, face down.

I climbed down the steep walls of the ditch, and shook the body. “Bill… Bill?” Nothing. I turned his face. Yep, it’s Bill. His lips were pale. His face was cold.

I climbed out of the ditch, pulled out my cell phone and dialed 911. “I think my friend is dead. He’s at the bottom of a concrete ditch.”

A half hour later, after his death was confirmed, a police officer came up to me and said, “You don’t look good. You’ve never done this before, huh?” I hadn’t. It wouldn’t be my last time calling in the coroner.

I looked up then and saw Buster walking up, seeing me and all the emergency services activity and looking confused. I went to him and just said, “He’s passed away, Buster.” For the first and last time, Buster and I held on to each other, needing the others’ support.

A few days later I called the coroner and asked him how Bill had died, wondering if he had wandered in the night and hit his head. “William didn’t die right away,” he said. “Although he hit his head, he didn’t have any internal bleeding. He died of hypothermia.” He froze to death on the concrete in the middle of the night, just far enough away from the tents that no one could hear him calling.

Buster met me later in the week and handed me a phone number. “This is the number of Bill’s sister-in-law. His family is back East. Could you give them a call and let them know?” Of course.

I call her and try to gently tell her the news. “So Bill was in Portland?”, she asked. Yes. “And he died of hypothermia at the bottom of a ditch?” Yes. “Good. After what he did to this family, he deserves whatever he got. You can be sure that I’ll let the family know and they’ll be happy about it. I’m sure he’ll go to hell. Thanks for your call.” And she hung up.

I have no idea what Bill did. I know that he spent some time in prison for it and ran across the nation to escape the shame of it. I suspect it was the shame that caused him to drink and to wake up in the middle of the night screaming, talking to people who weren’t there. I’m not sure, but that’s what I think.

But Bill was mourned in Portland, if nowhere else. We held a small memorial service. And I know that the traditional homeless mourning ceremony was also held—his friends gathered together, scraped up money for a beer each, and they each poured out their beer on the ground in memory of their friend. A drink and grain offering in memory of the dead.

May God have mercy on his soul. For few had mercy for him on earth.

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