I first met Willie not long after I started working here in Madison. The volunteer receptionist said there was a man at the door who seemed to be in bad shape. I went into the lobby where we meet with folks in need to find a man who was standing behind a walker, barely holding himself up. He looked sick . . . or drunk . . . or maybe a little bit of both.
“I need help . . . ” he told me.
“What kind of help,” I responded.
“I’m sick. I’m bad off. I think I’m gonna die.”
The conversation continued in that manner until we decided to call the paramedics (at his request). When they showed up he decided he really didn’t need help after all, until the police showed up and he was given the option of going to the hospital or to go with the police. He chose the former, and Willie was rolled out, shouting as he went.
It wouldn’t be my last opportunity to hang with Willie. He would show up every so often, looking for some help of one kind or another. He would often be in pretty bad shape, often drunk, and we’d help out with a bus pass or a food bag. We connected him to the local homeless outreach workers who attempted to get him into housing and at one point he had a Section 8 voucher to pay for housing, but for a variety of reasons he wasn’t able to find housing and the voucher expired. We walked with him 2 or 3 times after he was hospitalized as the result of being hit by cars. There were days we’d sit and talk and he’d tell me that he wished he was dead. “You are my only friend,” he’d tell me sometimes. And occasionally, he would even show up on a Sunday morning for church and even came up to the altar for our congregational prayer time. He would disappear every so often, and we would be convinced he was dead or in jail, and then, when we least expected it, he would show back up and surprise us. But Willie was almost 65 years old, living on the streets, with a long history of drinking. I had resigned myself the reality that my friend Willie would likely die on the streets.
So I wasn’t surprised this past Monday when I received the text from my friend in a neighboring congregation that feeds the homeless every Monday.
“Have you heard about Willie?” she asked.
“No,” I wrote back. “What’s up?”
She informed me that all sorts of folks had come into their church from the streets and were telling her that Willie had died. He had supposedly been pulled out of a local hotel after having died due to a heart attack. My first thought, in all honesty, was that I was glad he died in a more inviting space than on the streets, but even so, I found heart heavy. I had known that Willie was on the path toward an early death, but I was still sad that the day had finally come.
We reached out to the police and local organizations to see if we could get more information, but they couldn’t find anything that was helpful. Yes, a man had been found dead at the hotel, but he didn’t match Willie’s description. Then the street folks said he had been at the Rescue Mission when he died. We tried calling there, but never got a response. We were reconciling ourselves to the probability that Willie had died but that we would never know of his final resting place.
Today, I was reading on the sofa in my office when the door buzzer rang. Standing at the door was Willie!
“I thought you were dead,” I shouted at him.
“I ain’t dead yet,” he responded. “I can’t die yet.”
I never really became clear about what had happened. He said he had been in the hospital, but that wasn’t really clear. What I knew was that on Monday he was dead, and on the third day (today) he lived. And, as a celebration of his resurrection, I bought him a room for the night.
As a person of faith, I believe in the power of the resurrection. I believe that there is always hope, even when it seems that hope is absent. Trust me, there have been many days when I haven’t had much hope for Willie. His path is likely one filled with more pain and sorrow. He continues to be a person at risk and is likely to die on the streets.
But he isn’t dead yet. Hope continues. The possibility of transformation is always present.
You just never know when the third day is going to come!