On the radio in my car, the theologian Lauren Winner was being interviewed by National Public Radio’s Guy Raz about her new book Still, a memoir of a crisis in her faith. The car and I were in Honolulu, heading south on Atkinson Drive. As we approached the T intersection and turned west along the ocean, Winner began telling a story.
Sunk deep in depression (Lauren told Guy), she hadn’t wanted to be in church that Sunday morning. Nevertheless, she was there. She was doing her unwilling best to concentrate on the service, she said, when a woman who looked the worse for wear (those were Winner’s words: “looked the worse for wear”) sidled into the pew next to her (“sidled” was Winner’s word) and then began tapping on the pew in front. Instinctively, Winner said, she reached out and put her hand on the woman’s, as if the woman were a child in need of calming.
The woman didn’t recoil or pull her hand away. Instead, she turned her palm over and took Winner’s hand. The two women sat that way for the rest of the service, holding hands.
And, said Winner, Jesus was there.
As the anecdote unscrolled and reached its heartwarming conclusion, I had been driving down Ala Moana Boulevard. On my right, one shopping center had succeeded another: first the enormous Ala Moana Center, an important resource for Hawaii’s tourist economy; then the smaller Ward Centre and Ward Warehouse. On my left, rolling past, block after block, was one of the reasons people visit Hawaii: big, beautiful, free Ala Moana Beach Park.
But one thing the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau doesn’t tell visitors is that Honolulu’s parks and streets are populated by thousands of homeless people. In the fall of 2011, in advance of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu, city and state agencies chivvied the homeless away from the beaches and the main thoroughfares, denying all the while that they were doing so. But Lauren Winner was telling her story about Jesus on February 25, 2012, and by then the homeless were back along the beach at Ala Moana. On February 26, somebody in real estate would tell the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the impending closure of the Sears store in Ala Moana Center will be an opportunity to upgrade the shopping experience, because (he would say, in these words) Sears is blue-collar. But as I stopped at a red light on February 25, I had time to look at one of the men who live across the street from the stores. Along the park’s wall he had assembled what amounted to a little home, with a tent and a chair and a neatly arranged and quite sizable mound of possessions, perhaps five feet high. He was sitting in the chair, looking at the Pacific Ocean and smoking.
By the time I crossed Ward Avenue, pulled into the parking lot at OfficeMax, and killed the ignition, Lauren had moved on to other topics. I bought my office supplies, then headed home by the South King route in order to have lunch at Zippy’s McCully. In that neighborhood the homeless no longer occupy the sidewalk in front of Old Stadium Park, but there still are a lot of them all along the street. When I left the restaurant, one was just outside the door with his shopping cart. On the step above him stood the restaurant manager.
“You cannot stay here,” he was saying to the man with the cart. (In Hawaii Creolized English, the normal contraction is “cannot,” not “can’t.”)
The man had his mouth open and his lips were moving, but no sound came out.
I stepped down, walked around him, got back in my car, and turned the key. I hadn’t looked back or said a word. By now National Public Radio was broadcasting the Saturday Metropolitan Opera quiz. The quizmaster, who spoke with a brogue, said, “I’d like to say hello to listeners in my home city of Glasgow — both of them.”
Very late that night, I was startled awake by a loud thump on my front door. When I opened the door to look out, one of Hawaii’s big lace-necked doves flew right in, flapped silently across the living room, and landed on the piano. When I tried to catch her, she took off again and flapped to the other side of the room. That kept happening for about five minutes, but eventually she settled on something I could pick up. Unresisting by then, apparently disoriented and exhausted, the dove let me pick up her perch and dump her back out the door. In the morning there was no sign that she had ever visited my home.
If my name were Lauren Winner, I might take that as an omen. I might tell a story about it, and stake a claim to significance.
But there was probably no significance.