Today was a very difficult day for me. I will try to best explain what happened, how I felt, what I perceived and observed. I will try to be honest and not to either downplay or embellish facts. Instead of telling and retelling my story, I'm going to write it down in the hopes you will read it. You know what that means? You do.It MEANS, my friend, to read this. Danke.
A little over a year ago, I forget how I came across the article—I think it was through a blog somewhere, or a link. I don't know. But I cam across first an article written by SF Chronicle. It was written on this man, Vincent Pannizzo who had chosen to become homeless to serve the poor and homeless. Here is the SF GATE link.
I was so intrigued, convicted, inspired and curious, that I tucked the story away in the back of my mind. A couple weeks later, after going through my third cancer treatment à la lung surgery, I looked him up and found that PBS had also done a story along with a video on him. Here is the PBS story & video.
My previous mix of feelings were heightened a little more. Heck, I think the last straw was when I saw that Cracked.com mentioned him in one of their famous, hilarious and interesting lists—titled "5 Homeless Guys who Accomplished Amazing Things.
Vincent made second place, which I understand because it would be morally difficult for Cracked.com to grant such a blatant Christian First Place. (I've got to hand it to them though, they were really good at not poking fun at him and sounded like they actually had some genuine respect for the guy.)
Anyways, that last Cracked article kinda pushed the edge for me. I decided that once I came home, I would try to meet him. I first expressed this sentiment to myself, and I think to Samantha once or twice, but then quickly forgot about it. I was
going to try and contact him over spring break. But it came and went conveniently enough. Long story not so short, I finally made the time to write a little letter to Louise Hill, who was mentioned in the PBS article. She seemed to respect him enough to possibly help me, and it was also easier to get a hold of her since she had an address (which I found online). I wrote her this letter:
Dear Ms. Louise Hill,
I hope this isn't too out of the blue or bizarre and that this letter finds you in good health. I came across two articles on Vincent Pannizzo online, the man who is called the "Preacherman". I felt very strongly compelled to meet him yet I didn't know how to contact him. When I saw you're short interview on PBS I wondered if I might be able to contact him through you. If you would be able too, or if you know how I might be able too I was hoping maybe you could email me. If this is too strange of a request, or if you aren't Louise Hill (the interview is almost a year old now) an email saying so too me would be amazing. I live in Sunnyvale (just north of San Jose) so it isn't too difficult for me to come out to Oakland. My email is:
Thank you so very much,
Four days later I got a letter back. It was a short note that said she had passed my note on and that it would be best if I called and talked to him first. I did call. I was able to talk to him very briefly. I told him that I had found out about him from the articles and that I really respected what he was doing and I wanted to get in touch and possibly meet him. He seemed eager, or maybe not eager but perhaps comfortable
to meeting me, and that made me feel a whole lot more confident about the matter. This past monday I called him up, and he told me that he would be wearing a green baseball cap, with a beard and washing the windows of "Loard's Ice Cream" which was on the corner of Coolidge and MacArthur.
Before I go into my meeting, I'd like to be clear about my personal emotions regarding meeting and talking to him.
-) First I was scared. On one hand I had kind of built up this image of him—that there were
people out there who were following Christ and could be looked to as an example. I didn't want to see this constructed image/hope/religious fantasy come crumbling down. On the other hand, I was terrified of coming out depressingly convicted. There might have been some subtle hints of being scared for random little things like, meeting a new person and getting to know a complete surgery etc. They were mostly trivial though. Mainly I just felt scared, and it was this feeling that partly drove me to carry on anyways.
-) Secondly, I was very proud. Pride is something I struggle with, hell I'm proud about the fact that I have to struggle with my pride. Half the time I think people pretend to hate pride, while most people love someone with confidence that comes from a healthy dosage of (negative) personal pride. I don't know where personal comfortability transforms into self-esteem and overflowing abundant self-value, but I definitely find myself often in that territory. Just as some people are proud to find an obscure band who play good music, or an obscure book or food recipe or chic outfit—I was proud to have "found" Vincent and to have taken the initiative to contact him. Now that I've confessed that, I can confess that I am a little prouder to have met him face to face instead of reporting on written articles, or reporting on articles that comment on written articles about him.
-) Despite the image I built up of him and my pride. I was very sure that I needed to do this. At the very least if God was not involved at all in this nudging, I thought, it couldn't hurt me. Except for gas I essentially had nothing to lose by meeting him. To I honestly felt a strong desire to meet him and not all of it was from me.
I woke up early (10 am) this morning, got into my car and awkwardly followed Googlemaps' directions to 580 and finally to the Ice cream parlour. It was 12:10, he said he would be there around that time, yet when I walked around I couldn't find him. I returned to my car, suddenly very self-aware of my surroundings. It's Oakland after all and the area wasn't so great. I didn't feel scared, I was parked outside a Framing store which was owned quite obviously by a Christian since the sign outside said that they would not be at the shop on Sunday due to Church and through the doorway I recognized a verse from Psalm written up on the wall. After waiting fifteen minutes, my anxious feelings were beginning to get the best of me so I started playing the "wait just five minutes more-then in four minutes-wait another five minutes more-repeat" game. After another ten minutes I looked over and saw Vincent standing by the window.
I got out of the car and went up to meet him. I introduced myself again and we got into my car and drove to a nearby park. Apparently it was the same park where he did the interview for one of the news articles. Our conversation consisted of usual small talk that two strangers will go through before breaching more serious topics. Starting with how I found out about him, online. Because he's been homeless for ten years, he's never owned a computer or been online. That little fact alone was huge for me, who has grown up and been shaped incredibly by both inventions. He said "I don't even have a cell phone, and never really used them much." My first reaction was "Really? No cell phone? Their not expensive anymore." To which he replied, "I don't have any possessions, I don't need one." That sentence was going to be repeated in one shape or another several times throughout the next three hours. Example: He pointed to his backpack and said "If someone asks for my backpack, I'm going to have to give it to them. It'll be hard, I've had to give it to someone before and it was difficult to carry around things without it. But I have to give it if someone asks for it."
From there I gave my well practiced and oiled, autobiography shortened and adjusted. Including my family's purpose for living in Turkey and being on the field and my struggle with cancer several times. I included my desire to serve the poor ever since reading Shane Claiborne and somehow went into my recent political sentiments. I told him that I've felt two strong calls on my life, one of them being the poor. He listened and asked me a question every now and then. This was perhaps fifteen minutes to twenty minutes long, ten minutes into having gotten into the park. I didn't talk a whole lot after that.
I don't know if he felt that he needed to justify what he was doing, or to reason or persuade me that what he was doing was not crazy or pointless or stupid. I don't know. But the majority of the time, Vincent was was reciting scripture after scripture after scripture (Some he quote from memory, others he looked up and read from his small pocket NT&Proverbs&Psalms he was carrying in his back pocket. I'm remembering only some and having to look up their verses now. He quoted a lot, and come to think of it I don't think he quoted things twice):
"Give to all who ask." Luke 6:30
"Love your neighbor as yourself-but who is my neighbor, anyone and everyone is your neighbor. From those in need to your enemy." John 13:34-35, Matthew 22:34-40, Luke 10:25-37
"Easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than to enter the kingdom of God" Matthew 19:24-25
"The road to life is narrow but the road to destruction is wide" Matthew 7:13-14
"Take this cup from me" Mark 16:33-34
"No one can have two masters, for he will hate one and love the other...You cannot serve both God and Money" Matthew 6:24
"Blessed are the poor in spirit" and "Blessed are the poor" Matthew 5:3 and Luke 6:20 respectively
"don't hide your light under a bowl" Matthew 5:13?
and on and on and on. Good grief. I'm familiar with all of these verses and I had to keep telling him that I was already convinced, at least intellectually, of not his argument but (what I consider is) Jesus' argument. That Jesus wants us, his followers to love each other, and that means total service. Total service that will naturally include suffering and going homeless or living simply and poorly. I feel bad for having the attitude of "Yes, get on with it then." but I wanted to get to know him. Following Jesus to that degree, quite simply, is too hard for me to do at this moment. I'm writing this to show that he is not naive. The man is not crazy or mentally unstable. He is not mean or cold hearted.
He was constantly quoting scripture, and it was amazing and impressive and a huge relief. I had to dismantle my idea of him, and make it bigger with room to grow. The guy was real, he was legit. He was living what he believed and believing in what he is living. I've never seen faith like this. Actually...maybe that's why he was quoting scripture. Also, come to think of it, part of me feels like thats the only thing he owned.>>What he looked like
He'll be forty one years old come September. His face is very similar to the video except his teeth are a little cleaner, his beard is less trimmed and he's a little thinner. He told me of how he was beginning to feel the weight of his age and the tiring of his body and physical state.>>How he lives/has lived
He lives by getting what jobs he can each day and then buys food and gives it out each night. He also preaches each night, on a street corner somewhere in Oakland. I asked him towards the end of our conversations if he has any community. He told me that he didn't really, that homeless people can be very hard to connect with either because they are drug addicts or alcoholics or aren't able to easily keep in touch and something else I forget. I asked him if he had any friends. It gave him a pause and he said he didn't really, that he was too busy working in the day. He said he had Louise, but she was "more of a Coworker".>>Who he is
When he boasted, he boasted in Christ. I think for once it was an actual lesson in what boasting in Christ sounded and looked like. Praising and giving credit to whatever things he did constantly to the faith and strength he was given by God. I expected him to be happier. He felt very burdened and sad. He talked a great deal of suffering and having to deal with bitterness. He gave explained how we are the body of Christ, and Christ's body was nailed to tree and we are to suffer like him (he then procured a passage from Paul on this subject, which I can't find at the moment but I know exists). He told of how he woke up each day next, under the highway pass saying "What am I DOING?" and his constant struggle to keep doing what he's done. In a moment of weakness he mentioned how a probable "hundreds of thousands of dollars" had passed through his hands over the years and he's had to give it all away. He talked of how he was in academia and just as how he had to academically stretch himself, like an athlete pushes himself, faith is the same way. We connected on our similar love for history and talked a little about Ancient Greece and Thucydides, Herodetus (the first Historian) and he mentioned the name of one historian who wrote in the time of Alexander the Great (whose name escapes me now) whose writing he fell in love with during his doctorate. Three times he used the ancient greek root of a word to fully explain a verse or word. To say he knows his history is an understatement. In the first throes of conversation he mentioned how at the moment he was reading an account of Mussolini who he was as a man. He got very excited and seemed to brighten when he talked of history. He was always cautiously ask, when I used the name of a friend/relative, if they were Christian. He also seemed roughly informed about current events. He claimed to being unable to eat unhealthily or to be clean or to dress well.
"I mean, c'mon! Look at me! This is how I live every day. Every day man."
Lastly, he was very hurt. I know and could see that it pained him greatly all the disparaging and hurtful things that were said about him. He told me how he had talked to people who had listened to Christian radios and he was talked about. Calling him crazy, mentally ill and condemning him. He said a lot of profound things to me, one thing was: "People say they want to be a good witness to God, and they dress up in a nice suit. I think that's being a false witness. I'm trying to be a real witness. I'm dressed poorly and I'm dirty. I serve the poor, this is how I do it. If I were to dress nicely and go around, I'd be phony.">>Things I disagreed with/had a hard time with
He mentioned living in End Times and asked me what I thought of Revelations. I told him that I try not worry myself with it, instead choosing to believe that I can die at any time and should be prepared all the time anyways. He agreed but he seemed to be very concentrated on "the mark of the beast" and how it was probably related to currency. He picked up on the fact that I wasn't super interested, without me saying anything thankfully. It was kind of a bummer to see that some of his hope seemed to partially lie in the fact that the end was nigh. Though his emphasis that everything was going to pass away anyways, drove the home the point for me that following Jesus was all the more important. His belief in prophesy seemed to partially fuel these end times convictions. He didn't go into them much more though so I can't really report on how logical or crazy they are.
He breached predestination and asked if agreed with it. I said "yeah, I don't believe that we are predestined" to which he smoothed over it by saying "It doesn't really matter, we can avoid that subject." I agreed.
He dropped bits and pieces of how the "nominal" church doesn't look like what Christ's church should look like. Towards the end I told him I didn't like to get started on criticizing the church. He rebuffed me and said that I shouldn't withhold myself, which sounds very similar to what I've said to others and have slowly grown out of. I replied with quoting St. Augustine's "The Church is a whore yet she's also my mother." He laughed and enjoyed that quote very much.>>His wife and son
The biggest issue. I'm still digesting what he's told me. When I've talked to my parents, when I've talked to other friends and people I consider Christian. The fact that his wife and son are no longer with him, seem to provide a PERFECT
opportunity to dismiss everything he does. Usually much tut tutting ensues and comments like "That's too bad." Bringing this up with Vincent was tricky...but he knew it was going to come up eventually.
Obviously I only have his side, obviously I don't the wife's version of events or a third person's authoritative narrative.
Vincent presented it to me plainly. It was either his wife, or God's work. He couldn't stop serving the homeless and though his wife was supportive and helped him in taking care of disabled homeless people and feeding in the beginning, eventually she gave him an ultimatum. He confessed that he wished he could have raised his son. That the love between a father and son is entirely unique and how he could still feel his 18 month old holding on to him before he put him to bed, wanting to be with his "Dada" instead of sleep. He went on to how, Jesus said he was going to bring a sword instead of peace. Brother against sister, father against son, wife against daughter. He quoted and interpreted Luke 14:26-27 (such a difficult verse to accept, perhaps harder to interpret)
"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."
Later on (or perhaps before) he quoted the end of Luke 9
"As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go."
He said to another man, "Follow me."
But the man replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."
Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
Still another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family."
Jesus replied, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God."
Even still he quoted Paul who talks about the unbelieving spouse. He didn't elaborate more on, what sounded like a judgement of her spiritual standing, except that when I asked him if she was a christian he said she was. It pained him. He asked me if I didn't think he wanted to go home to a son and a wife. He claimed to still love her and to be bound to her, even though she had sent him divorce papers to sign. The pain was so evident that it explained why he said things towards the end about how he wished he had listened to Paul about it being better not to marry and that he wishes he hadn't.
To close this subject. At least from the perspective presented, it seemed very evident that he did not at all want to leave his family. That his wife left him instead and took his son burdened him greatly each day and she wasn't penniless or helpless by any means. My judgement was that it also undoubtedly made it in some way, perhaps "easier" for him to be homeless and to serve God so clearly. Not knowing his wife's story, I can only hope that she has grown stronger in her faith and has raised a son that may someday love God more anything else as well. I can't believe what he has had to endure and I wonder what God would say.>>His effect on me
From earlier on in our talking he seemed convinced that God was going to keep annoying me, with that constant, small, quiet little tug and that I was going to eventually answer. He told me that I would face great hardship, and would have to deal with similar difficulties that he has. He encouraged me to love God more than anything, to not let anything or anyone stand in the way of obedience to Jesus. A value that I don't think any Christian would disagree with except for what that "obedience" looks like. I talked to him my difficulty in following in footsteps remotely like his because of health concerns, and that was convenient for me. He did seem to put great emphasis on service to God though, in everything. When I gave him the "If someone was a Doctor and give 90% of their earnings to God, would that not be service?" scenario and He agreed it would be. I want to talk to him more about these scenarios.
I'm going to go back to talk and spend time with him. It's going to be challenging. I almost don't want to go back. The contrast between how he lives and how I live is so, so, so great, it's shameful. It's embarrassing. It's always embarrassing to have so much next to so little and so great poverty. When I think about this shame, this embarrassment, I proceed to wonder how, on my death, I could NOT be judged on my accumulation of wealth and material goods in the face of so much need.
I then gave him some money and I gave him a hug. He thanked me repeatedly and called me more than a friend, but a brother. I had been thinking for the past half hour that I wanted to pray for and with him aloud. Unfortunately I felt too troubled in my spirit and the fact that my bladder was aching for relief certainly provided me with adequate personal excuse not too. I told him I would keep him in my prayers and would call him again and hopefully find some people to come meet him. I then drove home to reeling comfort and leisure. It makes me feel deeply ashamed at even who I am, characterized so much by my wealth.
I think for now, that is an adequate description of my meeting. I fear I have said too much and I hope that I have not said anything out of line or revealed anything that I shouldn't have about Mr. Pannizzo. God bless him. Christ bless him.