Working With the Poor is Beautiful

His name is John Sigl.  I told you there were too many Johns at UGM.  Actually there’s not enough johns and people are always waiting to use the bathroom, but that’s not the kind of john I’m talking about.

John Sigl reminds me of my dad.  It’s a strange thing, to have a homeless man remind you of your dad, but he does.  I think it’s because he’s always trying to help out.  My dad can’t sit still, and neither can John Sigl.  One time when I was walking to UGM John was in the middle of the road watching traffic like a hawk.  I think he was monitoring it for criminals or something.  I don’t really know what was going on in his brain.  Another time—one of the first times I worked at UGM, actually—John was on the phone with the FBI, demanding that they stop following him everywhere.

I wonder how often the FBI gets calls from homeless people.

One time he came out of Bible study just infuriated.  John’s voice is gravelly and harsh, like a logger or a coal miner.

“This guy in there,” he yells, “is tryin’ to tell me that Jesus didn’t know if he was gonna go to heaven.  ‘Are you an idiot?I says to him.  ‘It says right there in God’s Word that Jesus says he is going ahead to prepare a place for us.'”

“Bible ain’t easy to interpret, John,” says one of the guys in the back.  “Everybody got their own understanding of what it means.”

John is also always letting us know when somebody is doing something they’re not supposed to be doing.  He came out of chapel once to let me know that somebody was sleeping in the back row of chapel.

“He ain’t supposed to be doin’ that,” he says.

“I know, John, but it’s not a big deal.  Leave him be.”

Usually John is just a nuisance.  The truth is, though, sometimes John scares me to death.  The other day I was sitting with him having dinner.  John is also like my dad in that he will take anything as an excuse to start a conversation.  Unlike my dad, however, John doesn’t talk about work.  John talks about how someday he’s going to kill the man who raped his wife.

John’s face is gaunt and sullen; his eyes are set deep in his face and he looks out at you from under his eyebrows like he is further off than he is, like he is a thousand miles away.

John scares me.  The way he talks about vengeance and justice is terrifying.  He talks about himself like he is an instrument of God’s judgment.  When he talks about people doing something wrong he tells me that he is going to kill them, that people like that don’t deserve to live, and that given the chance he wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.  This is pretty much every conversation I have with John Sigl.  He is a very disturbed man.

Once at UGM there was this terrible band playing at chapel.  You would think that the bands who come in to play for 150 homeless guys would consider their audience, but they don’t.  The main guy had a fauxhawk and sounded like Scott Stapp from Creed.  At the end of every phrase, he wouldn’t finish the word, he would just get louder and scream and pull away from the mic like he was, well, Scott Stapp.  Plus they were about twice as loud as they needed to be.  So loud, in fact, that a guy had a seizure in the prayer room.

I called 911 and when the paramedics arrived, they took a look at him and told me that they didn’t want to take him to the hospital, since he had been there twice already in the last 24 hours and was refusing treatment.  They went off to check on him some more and debate about whether to take him with them or leave him with us.

It was then that John Sigl wandered up to the front desk.  He looked at me with a depth and sanity that was almost unsettling.

“You know,” he said, “I could go with him to the hospital and make sure he gets treated.  I’ll make sure he doesn’t turn them down; I can just spend the night on the couch up there, it’s not too far.  And if he stays here, I’ll put my mat right next to his, and if he wakes up or has another seizure or anything, I’ll let you guys know.  Whatever I can do to help.”

Now, sending John to the hospital would have been a terrible idea.  But whether it was a good idea or not was hardly the point: the point was not the value of the idea, but the spirit of humility and self-sacrifice in which it was given.  For me, to see the Spirit of God moving so profoundly and plainly in a broken, tortured, homeless old man was like looking into a mirror.  I looked into the eyes of John Sigl and saw him, and saw myself, and saw Jesus, all at once.

I wouldn’t have offered that.  The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind.  I wanted a guaranteed night of quality sleep in my own bed, to wake up in a familiar place of safety and self-reliance.  But on that day, at least, John Sigl was a better man than me.

And he probably still is.

Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

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3 Responses to Working With the Poor is Beautiful

  1. Noah says:

    Whoa. I’ve really enjoyed your UGM posts, Mike. Thanks. They challenge me to reimagine faith, life, and poverty in Seattle.

  2. Anna says:

    Mike, I love this. Your thoughts are so valuable. I want to craw inside your mind to see the way your mind works. Thank you so much for sharing this.

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