He could really play the piano. Was he professionally trained? God-gifted? It didn’t matter, the children loved to see him coming and hear him playing.
When my children were small and we were members of a small church, coffee hours on Sunday were spectacular. No matter who sponsored, it was a wonderful affair. We were in the shadow of the Defense Language Institute and Naval Postgraduate School, also Fort Ord. That meant we collected a lot of military families and since they were never in any one place very long, everyone jumped in and got busy belonging. Every Sunday was a party, lots of children, elders who’d lived in Monterey “forever,” coming and going.
Into this maelstrom of love, energy, and affection, walked Rusty. A stranger. A man who obviously lived on the street. A young man without roots. Just came for the food. We gave him a plate. He ate. Then saw the piano. Magic happened. The songs just kept coming. The children (and the adults) were enthralled. A bit of musical artistry from a most unexpected place.
I’d never heard of “remittance man” before I met Rusty. His Rhode Island family sent him just enough money to stay in Monterey. He dealt with his demons however he could manage for the day. The children never saw that. They never looked at him askance. They always were delighted by his music. We never knew when he’d show up, but he did pretty frequently. For a season.
Then we didn’t see Rusty. There was a cold snap in Monterey - a really cold spell. Turns out Rusty was sleeping on a park bench. He died from the cold. He died. On a park bench. We never told the children. When they asked where he could be, someone said that he’d gone on to another great adventure. I believe it’s true. I remain always grateful for many things about our time with Rusty.
The music, of course.
The experience of radical mutual hospitality. Yes, we shared food with Rusty, but he shared glory with us.
The witness of the children’s acceptance and love. Was their innocence and openness in befriending Rusty the first time I knew what “God loves you. No exceptions” looks like?
I saw Jesus in Rusty. Perhaps we all did. I didn’t expect to see Jesus. At first, I only saw a disheveled, somewhat-scary stranger. But together, we welcomed him and he welcomed us into life lived on the edge, making music whenever possible, dependent upon whatever the day would bring. That’s what community does: it brings us into greater fullness of humanity, into the glorious complexities of life, and into abundance and variety of experiences. When we welcome the stranger, we know ourselves to be a stranger in need of welcome. When we clothe the hungry, we know ourselves to be naked souls. When we visit those who are ill or in prison, we feel our own captivity and wounds. We see Jesus in the Other and the Other sees Jesus in us.
This happens when we emerge from our cocoon of “people like me.” Sometimes that is hard to do. Together we can. Together. Body of Christ. Witness to radical love. Receiving more than we can ever give. Knowing, and acting, the truth of God’s love, without exception.