My freshman year of college, I was walking down the main street that served as a connector/demilitarized zone between the campus and the city where it was located when I was stopped by a homeless person. By that point in my still-young life I was already accustomed to homeless people asking for money—quarter beggars, we called them in that era of political incorrectness—and usually brushed past them. I was paying tuition and, literally, didn’t have a spare quarter. But this particular moment was different. First, the man wasn’t asking me for money. And, second, the man was Art.
Art was a bit of a local legend in town. He was homeless, yes, and had all of the characteristics one would expect of someone in his position—unkempt, somewhat malodorous, kind of scary. He would throw beer cans at cars and curse at people when they stared. But Art also stuck around through the bitterly cold winters, unlike many of his fellow homeless people who would catch a boxcar south for the winter and then return in flocks during the pleasant summer months. And Art was also somewhat enterprising, which played well with the city’s blue-collar crowd. Somewhere along the way he picked up a bucket and squeegee and traveled up and down State Street washing the windows of the record shops and T-shirt stores in exchange for a few dollars.
He became well-known enough that one entrepreneurial person even had T-shirts made up that posed the question: “What is Art?” Right below that was a photo of Art, holding his squeegee in an American Gothic-like pose, and the answer: “A window washer on State Street.”
My lone brush with Art came outside of a liquor store. It was a Friday night and Art wanted to start his weekend with something to drink. The store’s owner refused to sell him anything, however, because it was rumored Art’s health was deteriorating and he didn’t want to contribute to his demise. Such is the price of being a cultural icon, I suppose. So Art flagged me down and asked if I would go inside and buy something for him. He pulled out a couple of crinkled bills and a handful of coins, placed them in my hand with detailed instructions on what he wanted and even where it was located.
In some ways, I felt a bizarre sense of honor for being asked by Art to buy his booze. I reasoned that it was quite a leap of faith for a homeless person to hand over his money to a total stranger, and I was that person. But why me? Did I look honest enough? Did he think he could catch me if I took off with his cash? No matter, I walked into the store and grabbed a bottle of his desired drink.
“Nope,” the owner said. “You’re buying this for Art, and I won’t sell it to you, either.” It was his store and he could do what he wanted, so I walked out empty-handed. I gave the money back to Art and explained what happened. “Sorry,” I said. “Thanks,” he said. We went our separate ways.
That was all I saw or heard about Art until my sophomore year when a front-page story carried the news: Art died. The alcohol and years of exposure finally took their toll. After a brief chronicle of his life and comments from those around town, the story ended by noting that he died with only one possession: a wallet. Brushing passed the irony of a homeless man owning nothing but a wallet, the story simply noted what was inside: no money, no photos, no ID, just a card that read “Jesus loves Arthur.”
I’ve often thought about that. Who gave him that card? Why did he keep that and nothing else? Among the destitute conditions, loneliness and daily struggles of his life, did he find a ray of hope in the love of Jesus?
I was reminded of all of this again while editing the story in the Summer 2006 issue of Xavier magazine about Ben Urmston, S.J., the founder and, for now, lone leader of the University’s peace and justice programs. Urmston is retiring, but one of the many efforts he created in his 25 years on the job was Shantytown, the annual event in which students learn and raise awareness about homelessness by building cardboard tents in the middle of the academic mall and living in them for a week. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it snows. It’s a hard lesson that generally leaves an imprint on the memories of those who participate.
Seeing a city of unstable cardboard lean-tos and plastic tarps on the academic mall isn’t a pretty site, but that’s one of the great things about college and, in particular, Xavier. There’s more to an education than what’s in a book, and most lessons usually aren’t wrapped up in nice, neat, easily understood packages. Life is messy. Teaching in the untidy realm outside of the academic arena is a focus at this University, though, including—if not particularly—the peace and justice programs.
Academic service-learning semesters, alternative break, Habitat for Humanity—many of the programs designed to educate students on how to live as men and women for others fall under the guidance of the peace and justice programs. They are the kinds of programs that make Xavier different, and the kinds of programs I wish were available to me when I was in school. The University is still searching for someone to replace Urmston, although that’s proving to be a difficult task. Filling the position may be easy; replacing the passion is another. But it’s worth it to try, because the program and the efforts are vital. It’s what St. Ignatius had in mind. It’s what St. Francis Xavier went to the Far East to do. Not everyone can be saints in the Catholic Church, but we can do our little part. Even if it’s just giving a homeless person a card telling them that Jesus loves them.