Published: Jun 12, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Jun 12, 2012 03:58 PM
When I joined the congregation of St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, I didn’t know how to talk to the homeless men and women who gather on our property and share breakfast with us five days a week.
In the beginning I felt uncomfortable with conversation beyond a “hello” or “good morning.” What were we supposed to talk about? I saw them simply as homeless, people to be pitied, and not as people with good days and bad days, with pride, with rich pasts and jokes to share.
Then they befriended me. Slim, with his booming laughter, likes to make me jump in (always unsuccessful) attempts for a high five, his hand raised above his 6-foot, 6-inch frame. We shoot the bull and tease one another.
Mac and I talk about growing vegetables while we work in the garden. Mac lives in a house financially supported by our congregation and other Christians. I have yet to get to know many of the others.
But I knew James Richardson the best. He spent many hours on the church grounds. As I planted and weeded in our growing church garden, we talked about everything and anything – the book he was reading, my hound dogs, how my husband liked his new job.
Many times as I walked away I realized we’d only talked about how my week was going, and he’d left me with encouraging words. Many people had this experience. I knew little of his past, and he was not proud of some of it. He rarely spoke to me about his emotional and mental struggles. James was a listener.
Sometimes I handed him cash for meals or gave him a lift, but that was nothing compared to the friendship he gifted me.
James died about two months after doctors diagnosed him with cancer. He passed away on April 25 at the age of 48 with several friends from the church at his bedside.
The Rev. Karen Barfield, who leads St. Joseph’s, included his story in a recent sermon.
“All of James’ earthly possessions fit into two duffle bags, three backpacks and several kitchen-size garbage bags,” she said. “And yet, in just about every encounter with James, he gave something. He offered a part of himself.”
For about two years James volunteered his time as a caretaker of St. Joseph’s, watching the parish hall during meetings and church services, cleaning, and setting up and taking down tables and chairs after breakfasts.
During the final weeks of his life he continued his service as he lived in the parish hall. He resisted going to the hospital until days before he died. If someone brought up his death, he told them, “I’m not dying. I’m living with an incurable disease.”
Throughout the week members of St. Joseph’s as well as St. Basil the Great Romanian Orthodox Church, who worship upstairs in the parish hall, frequently come and go. Others gather for morning and evening prayer.
James made friendships with many of them. He always ended conversations with a smile and the words “stay blessed.” This faith, coming from a man who slept in a tent, moved many of us.
James loved the freedom of the outdoors. He spent many sunny hours in the church garden, which he’d helped create. He cut and nailed together boards for the raised beds, turned over soil and mulched.
Dozens of James’ friends gathered in a circle in the garden on a muggy evening, near a bench on which he often sat, to celebrate his life. As birds chattered in the giant oak-tree canopy above us, we shared memories of his easy grin, his knowledge of scripture and his total acceptance of friends without judgment. We planted a small dogwood tree in his memory.
At James’ funeral his cousin Janice Hall-Bynum, of Goldsboro, described James not as an expansive, blossom-covered tree but a single flower. James’ life was simple, and tougher than most, but served the purpose set out by God.
If you keep your eyes and heart open, you may be lucky enough to come upon a bloom like James.