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I didn’t go to the mall to find God. Had I been looking for God I would have perhaps visited a religious institution, a quiet grove, or a place only reached through deep meditation. Instead, I was with my best friend Angela, and I intended to discover, not nirvana, but good Chinese food.
“The food court has to be around here somewhere,” I optimistically announced to Angela, who, trudging hungrily alongside me, looked as if she could use the encouragement.
“Have we eaten anything today, Leah?” Angela responded. Her voice was strained, as if she were trying desperately to recollect her last meal.
I thought back a bit. It felt odd, actually, having to try so hard just to remember that last time I’d eaten. On top of that, we’d been traveling by car for days now and were in a completely foreign environment. Hundreds of miles from home, my memory of the past weeks was a blur of strange, new landscapes flickering through my mind like reels on a film. This morning we’d arrived in Indianapolis. Living on the road, we found it difficult to both find and afford food.
I hummed softly to fill my thoughtful silence, then said, “We had some crackers in the car earlier, remember?”
“Right, right,” said Angela. “Well, what do you want for dinner?”
“I was thinking Chinese. We deserve a little splurge, I think.”
The sidewalk was cold and gray underneath us, but the city was beautiful in the afternoon light. Unlike Detroit, our previous stop, the streets were as clean as a landscape portrait. Having spent a fair amount of time visiting the more shady parts of larger cities recently, I felt safe on this bright, open sidewalk, strolling alongside the mall windows and looking inside at the popular fashions.
Then I saw someone. At first, my mind didn’t really pick up on the image. There was a man, drably dressed, sitting against the wall with mall advertisements hanging in the windows above his head. The image just didn’t fit. We’d seen homeless people, of course, in the other large cities we’d been in. Hell, we’d worked with lots of them, doling out soup and sandwiches and making conversation. But somehow seeing one here was shocking to me. So far, this city had seemed exempt.
Well, we’d talk to him then! Of course we wouldn’t give him money, but perhaps we could run into the mall and bring him out some dinner. We’d done that plenty of times, and here in the afternoon sunlight, the normal tinge of nervousness that accompanies two girls alone talking to a homeless man—well, that was completely forgotten.
“Hi,” said Angela, approaching the man ahead of me.
He looked up. He didn’t ask for money. I would have been prepared for that, prepared to say “no, but we can get you some food from inside if you like.”
But he didn’t ask. Instead, he looked up. He was wearing a medical mask, and it shifted up and down as he spoke muffled words, “You came to Indianapolis looking for God, didn’t you?”
I felt the world shift.
I had come looking for God.
I heard Angela explaining our story to the man in a calm, polite voice, “In a way, yes. We’re in Indianapolis because it’s a stop on our trip. We’ve been traveling around the country for a month now, stopping only to do volunteer work and random acts of kindness.”
A stream of people walked down the sidewalk, each careful to avoid eye-contact. In fact, they avoided eye-contact with Angela and I as well, as though by conversing with this homeless man we, a couple of average, friendly college girls, had become a part of his frightening world. We were part of the danger and part of the fear.
“You see here,” he said, pulling a small, battered New Testament from his pocket. His fingers were dirty and trembling as he turned the pages. His voice was like a whisper, but there was energy behind it. Excitement. “It says God is watching us. God is here. Do you believe me?” His tone was passionate, urgent.
Angela and I nodded, near tears. The tears weren’t tears of emotion or of passion, but tears of pure energy. This man was clearly insane. The question, then, was this: was he insane simply because he saw reality differently than everybody else, and, if that was the case, did it necessarily make his perception wrong? In either case, we answered, “We believe you” in part because we were humoring him and in part because, whether insane or not, he was right about us coming to Indianapolis looking for God.
His eyes were bright blue. Bright. Not bright like crystals, not bright like the sun or the moon or any other romanticized notion you may have about the overused phrase “bright blue eyes.” These eyes were bright--unnaturally so. A poet wouldn’t even have words for them.
“I am God,” he whispered and traced a dirty finger across his palm. “Can you see the holes here?” He motioned to his feet. “And here? And there are bruises in my head.”
Angela and I watched him, horrified, mystified by his invisible stigmata. Plenty of crazies have the Christ complex, right? But we couldn’t just write it off as some mental case let lose on the streets.
I personally am not a Christian. I follow the mystical spiritual belief that God is everyone and everyone is God. Still, it was a struggle for me to listen to this homeless man on the street tell me that he was God. I believed in the innate God-ness of all creatures, but part of me still wanted to write this man off as crazy. Why? Technically, what he said was true according to my own belief system.
Angela and I began our traveling as a mission of faith. We left with very little money, and our goal was to volunteer, do kind things, and make connections with other people all across the country. We had no idea how far we’d be able to go or what we would accomplish, but we knew that as long as we tried we would find incredible truths and create incredible stories. We were traveling through strange, surreal places we’d never visited; our minds were open to truth and our hearts open to love, more so than they would be during a normal routine day at home. In fact, had we been walking down a familiar street in Raleigh on our way between classes, I doubt if this man would have had such an impact.
As it was, we couldn’t write him off as crazy. We took a step back. Anyone can say, “Oh, this man is clearly insane. He has a Christ-complex. Just ignore him.” Angela and I were out here, however, to help people. We were out here to find God. Insanity is simply a perception of reality that differs from the mainstream, accepted viewpoints. Why, then, should we just assume it’s a “wrong” perception? Maybe he truly saw something we didn’t.
Maybe he was just crazy.
“I suffer,” he said, “So that you can go to heaven.” Before those words could sink in, his medical mask slipped and we could clearly see that this man did not have a nose. Instead, there was a horrible, gaping scab. He pushed the mask back up.
Horrible chills of surreality invaded my entire body. God or not, I was afraid of this man. I decided to end this quickly. “We’re about to go inside. Is there anything we can get for you?”
“Coca Cola!” he said, those intense eyes brightening with excitement, for all the world a child about to get his favorite treat.
Despite the eeriness of the situation, Angela and I both laughed. “All right, we’ll get you a Coke. Would you like anything else?”
“No, no,” he said. “My stomach can’t really handle much else too good.”
We agreed to bring him a Coke and walked into the mall. Normal, everyday people walking past began to make eye-contact with us again. We’d rejoined society.
Angela was quiet and thoughtful. We found a Chinese place in the food court and sat down with our food.
“Should we really go back and bring him a Coke?”
“We’re on a trip to promote kindness and compassion. We promised another person a Coke. We can’t just break our promise.”
I nodded, “I agree, but Angela, his nose.”
I placed extra emphasis on the words ‘his nose,’ knowing Angela would understand that I was encompassing the entire weirdness of the whole situation.
“Do you think he’s really God?” asked Angela.
“I believe that everyone is God. But I’m scared, still. Scared to go back and talk to him. I’m not sure I want to bring him a Coke.”
Scared. I was scared to buy God a Coke. It seemed ridiculous.
And to me this man was God. Everyone is. Why was I so conflicted?
Angela, a Christian, had a very valid viewpoint as well, “God or not, whatever we ‘do unto the least of them we do unto God.’ Showing him kindness shows God kindness as well, and we’re out here to do good works.”
I laughed a bit and said, “I shouldn’t be scared to buy God a Coke.”
But I was still scared, and I could tell she was too. We didn’t want to face him again, not his unnatural blue eyes or the gaping nose that hid behind his mask.
We made phone calls then. I called a trusted friend, a spiritual comrade, and described my struggle between fear, love, and the knowledge that God is in everyone. My friend told me that I shouldn’t be afraid, but that if I was experiencing too much fear I shouldn’t force myself to do something overwhelmingly uncomfortable. However, he added, if I truly promised a Coca Cola to someone, I really shouldn’t break my promise.
I tried to imagine how the man would feel, sitting alone on that gray sidewalk as dozens of people walked past, ignoring him. But, maybe, he’d think that that was all okay and he could stand the pain of being outcast for a while because two nice girls had offered him a Coke. And he would sit and wait for the Coke happily thinking about how it would brighten his day. And hours would pass, and he would try to not become cynical just because he’d been let down so many times before, but in the end if we didn’t show up, how disappointed he’d be. I couldn’t do it. God aside, I simply could not let down another human being that way.
Angela also made a phone call, but she dialed the wrong number, and after that she gave my phone back to me.
We cleared our food away and bought the biggest Coca Cola we could find. I was nervous. We’d already spent over an hour eating, trying to decide what to do. Maybe it was too late. Maybe he’d left already. But if he had left already, couldn’t I have a clear conscience? Maybe he’d left, but I could still say that I did the right thing and bought the Coke for him in the end, even though he left before I could give it to him. Maybe he left, and I could both be a good person and not have to face my fear.
We walked outside, and fear met me there: The man was gone.
Suddenly, I felt desperate to find him. No! I thought fiercely. Don’t go away! Don’t be let down by us! We have your Coke! We can brighten your day! We can show you love that you seldom are shown!
Angela was beside me, holding the Coke. All my fear was gone. It was twilight now, and I took off running down the gray sidewalk. Maybe he’d just moved behind the building. I searched the crowds, but I didn’t see him. So I ran the other way, passing Angela, briefly seeing the mixture of bewilderment and sympathy on her face.
Angela, meanwhile, set his Coca Cola down on the sidewalk where we’d first seen him sitting. She set it down gently, sadly, like flowers on a tomb, as if hoping he’d find it there.
I had to find him! I begged the universe; I pleaded with God himself—bring this man back so we can show him love and have a happy ending!
And, finally, I saw him! He was riding a beat up purple bike across the street. I shouted and waved at him the way a child cries out and waves to their father when he comes back from war. “Hey! We have it! We took a while, but we have your Coke!”
Without missing a beat and without even being motioned towards his prize, the man rode past me right to that spot beneath the mall ads, dismounted, and sat down next to his Coca Cola, just exactly the same as we’d met him before.
We approached him.
I spoke, breathless, “I’m sorry we took so long. I was worried when we couldn’t find you to give you your Coke!”
He nodded, never taking a sip. He looked at us, bright blue eyes piercing us from behind his pale blue medical mask. “Christ is here with us,” he said, looking around at the passing people as if he expected to see Jesus any minute. “I can’t see him right now, but he’s probably right around here.”
We nodded, conflicted between joy and fear once again.
“There are voices, a bad demon whispering in this ear and a good one in this ear. I listen to the good one. There are angels around you girls,” he said, motioning above and around us with his hands. “Watching you.”
Again, I felt a bit uncomfortable and afraid. We talked a bit more, but finally said we needed to go. As we walked away, waving, he shouted to us, “I love you!”
He loved us. Whoever he was, God loved us.