The Manger of.......Charleston
I saw the manger of Bethlehem once. It was located in downtown Charleston.
I was the pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church, on Wentworth Street, in the historic area of the peninsula. The church was two large buildings- a sanctuary and a fellowship hall, connected by a small hallway in the back of the church. There was a tiny alcove between the two buildings. That was where Engadi slept during the winter.
Engadi was a homeless man who lived on the streets of the Holy City. I met him shortly after I became pastor there. He knocked on the door of the church, I answered, and found a man about my height, very thin, with wiry hair that reminded me of the Afro I sported back in the 1960’s. His clothes were dirty, and he had a small cloth bag on a strap slung around his shoulder. He stuck his hand out and said in a strange accent, maybe Pakistani, “You are the pastor?” “Yes, I am. I’m Mike Henderson,” I replied, taking his hand. “Ah, Henderson,” (and that was what he called me from that day on), “I have a question.” He pronounced my name “Hin-dah-sahn.” He pulled out a worn Bible from the bag, opened it to one of the prophets, and asked me, “What does this mean?” I invited him to step into the fellowship hall. We sat down at a table, and began to talk. He did not take much of my time, then stood, thanked me, shook my hand, and walked out. That was the beginning of our friendship.
I found that during warmer months he slept around the corner, under the bushes at Trinity United Methodist Church. When the temperatures dropped, he moved into the alcove at Centenary. It was more protected from the winds. I tried to get him to go to one of the shelters, especially in the winter. But he refused, saying he did not need it, and that others could have his place. I do not know why he was homeless, and he was evasive when I asked about his past. He was well-known on the streets of Charleston. He would take magic markers and color small streaks in his hair. When I spoke of Engadi, everyone knew who I was talking about.
Engadi knocked on the door about once a week. He would always have a question related to what he was reading in his Bible. “Henderson, do you think Jesus really meant it when he said you needed to sell everything and give it to the poor in order to have eternal life?” “Henderson, why does David say he sinned only against God when he sinned against so many people?” “Henderson, what does it mean to worship in spirit and in truth?” I had many good conversations with Engadi, ones that made me think.
The good people at Centenary knew he slept in the alcove, and never asked that he leave. He kept his sleeping bag and few possessions stashed in the rear, behind a propane tank. He never left trash, and the alcove did not become a gathering place for street people. The church members began calling it Engadi’s Nest. Engadi was never there during church times, but whenever the church would have a meal, they would always fix a plate or two of food for him, wrap it up to keep it warm and safe, and place it in the alcove with a thermos of hot coffee. The next day the thermos would be on the doorstep, with a note saying thanks written in magic marker on a scrap of paper. On particularly cold nights people would go by to make sure he was warm, taking extra blankets, coats, and hats.
I learned some unexpected lessons from him, too. He began to use the magic markers to color all of his hair in bright hues. Streaks of blue, red, orange, yellow, green covered his head. He began to look more than just homeless. He began to look like he was mentally ill.
“Engadi, you’re scaring people,” I said to him one Sunday when I ran into him after church. “How is that, Henderson?” he asked. “The way you’re doing your hair. It makes people think you are crazy.” “I am not crazy,” he said. “When I do this, it makes me invisible.” “Now you are crazy,” I said. “I can see you.” “Yes, you can. But nobody else can.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Come with me and I’ll show you.” We walked across the peninsula to a large and rather affluent church and stood across the street from it as people were leaving. “You stand here,” he said, “and watch as I go across the street and become invisible.” He walked across the street and stood by the gate as worshippers were leaving. I watched as a few hundred worshippers walked out and passed by this strange man with dirty clothes, multicolored wiry hair, and cloth bag slung around his shoulder. He just stood there. They walked by, none of them making eye contact with him. Not a word was spoken to him. When they were all gone, he walked back across the street. “See, I am invisible.” “Engadi, maybe they were just scared of you,” I offered. “No,” he said. “They did not see me.”
He did begin to let the colors fade, and hopefully, become visible again.
It was on a cold, wet day the week after Christmas that he knocked on my door again. “Henderson, I just want to wish you a merry Christmas.” “Thank you, Engadi. Let’s go get some soup and a sandwich.” In all our time together, Engadi never asked for anything. But he would accept gifts when offered. We walked to the small diner at the end of Wentworth. I order the food and coffee, and we sat and talked for a while about our hopes for the new year.
After the meal we walked back towards the church. He had other places to go, so we wished each other a merry Christmas and happy New Year, hugged and walked our own ways. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and Engadi was holding out his gloves to me. They were old, ratty, and the fingers were worn through. “Henderson, I want you to have these,” he said. “Engadi, I can’t take your gloves.” “No. I noticed that you do not have gloves. I am used to the cold. You are not. Please take these. They are my gift to you.” So I took the smelly old gloves and put them on my hands. “Thank you, Engadi.” “You are welcome.” We hugged each other again and walked away. As I passed the alcove, Engadi’s Nest, a blast of cold icy wind hit my face. My eyes teared up from the wind, and as I looked into his nest, I swear by all the angels in heaven, it looked just like a manger.
I hope that the wind blows in your face this season, and you see something you did not see before. Or Someone.