Editor’s note: This Lent season, Bread Blog is running a series of devotionals written by staff, alumni, and friends of the San Francisco Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A).
By Rev. Paul Gaffney
I don’t know how Van ended up living outside. When I asked him about his situation, his answer was, “Well, I’m a city monk. And a revolutionary medic. When the revolution comes, we will need both monks and medics.” Then he laughed – a hearty, full belly laugh, his blue eyes twinkling behind his thick glasses. Van lived at the San Francisco Zen Center for a number of years back in the 1970s, and he clearly had learned something there about how Zen masters are supposed to act. He would offer sharp-witted quips and intentionally inappropriate remarks in order to disrupt the status quo. Van was many things – city monk, medic, actor, writer. He kept a blog of his experience of homelessness full of reflections, teachings, and ideas for future projects.
Van regularly attended the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy Wellness Group on Tuesday nights, and always had something to say. And if he didn’t say it while sitting in the circle, he was sure to tell me after. I talked with Van a lot. I liked Van a lot. I really dug his sense of humor. He had a way about him, a very particular and unique disposition, mysterious and vague with an amazing sense of ease. And his mystery actually felt genuine, like it was truly what his heart wanted to express. One week, he showed up walking with a cane. I asked him about that, and he said, “It looks pretty good on me, doesn’t it? As a younger man, I always wanted to someday walk with a cane.” Nothing about what had happened to cause the limp. Nothing about the brace or the wrapping on his foot. He didn’t show up the next week. Or the week after that. Months went by, and I was asking around. There wasn’t any activity on his blog. No one had seen Van.
Then, one Friday morning about 9 months after his disappearance, Van was sitting on the couch in the café where some folks from the Wellness Group and I meet weekly. It was wonderful to see him! He stood from his chair and offered me a hug. “Where have you been?” I asked. “Oh, I’ve had the most amazing adventure. Actually I’m still on it,” he replied with a smile, “It is finally happening, at long last. It is finally happening!” I sat next to him and leaned into his excitement, “What’s happening? What is this adventure?” Van’s smile widened, and his eyes twinkled with tears, “I’m dying, Paul. The next time you don’t see me, you won’t see me anymore.” He tilted his head and swiped the tear from the corner of his eye. I was shocked. Deeply saddened and concerned. It must have shown on my face. “Come on,” he said slapping me on the shoulder, “I need some help with a few things.”
We got into my car and he pulled out a Johnny Cash CD. “Does your vehicle make use of these funny discs? A friend gave this to me, and I’d sure like to hear it.” I drove Van to the drugstore as he bounced in his seat to “Folsom Prison Blues” and he insisted that I “stay in the car to keep Johnny company” while he went inside to get what he needed. We later arrived at the skilled nursing facility where he was staying, and I walked down the hall with him to his room. He sat on his bed and exhaled deeply as he hung his head. He looked tired. So very tired. He reached to his side and handed me a large plastic bag. “These are my last remaining worldly possessions,” Van said, “take them and give them away so that a little bit of me can still be out there. A little joy to quell the inevitable sadness of the loss of me from this world.” He looked at me and laughed that laugh, smiled that big smile of his. I heard from Van pretty much every day for the next couple of weeks. Then nothing. I called the nursing facility and asked about him. “All I can tell you,” the nurse said, “is that he is no longer here.”
I took the bag of Van’s things into town and handed out his books, CDs, and a few articles of clothing to folks who knew him. That Johnny Cash CD, though, will live in my car forever. And whenever I hear “Folsom Prison Blues” I see Van bouncing in my passenger seat, that wide smile on his face, excited to continue on his most amazing adventure.
Rev. Paul Gaffney is a chaplain at Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy and earned his master of divinty at San Francisco Theological Seminary.