Reality Check


A day or two before Ash Wednesday, my wife and I went to Taco del Sol in Helena to have a light dinner and to spend some time together. 

There was a line at the order counter, and a man was standing to the side, not quite in line. I wasn’t sure whether he was Indian or Pacific Islander, but he approached me as if I were an Indian.

As he talked he suddenly slipped and fell to the floor, rolling on his back. He was heavily intoxicated. I gave him my hand and pulled him up, and asked if he was all right. He said, “Sometimes I blackout.” I placed an order at the counter, an order of nachos for Joan and me to share and a soft-shell taco for myself. The man leaned on the counter watching the food preparations. 

I asked the man, “Are you hungry?” I thought anyone with too much to drink could use some nourishment.

“Yeah,” he said.

“What would you like?”

I ordered him two soft shell tacos with beef. I thought the girl behind the counter was relieved that I had done that. Joan had gone to sit down at one of the tables in the restaurant. When his food came, the man sat at the table next to ours. When our food finally came, I carried it over to Joan and we sat and ate.

I asked the man his name.

“Johnny,” he said. He said he was Crow and wanted to know what I was. 

I said I was not Indian, I was Japanese from Hawaii. He thought about that while he ate. He started to talk about how badly Indians have been treated over the centuries and how lousy minorities had it in this country. Sensing that he wanted to know whether I was a brother, I said that I’ve done all right. I did not want to engage him too deeply on the topic of ill treatment–to get into a deep discussion on how the Japanese Americans on the west coast were herded into concentration camps. He said that he didn’t want much in life: a good job, a place to stay, and a good companion, like I had in Joan. I believe we told him that in a few days we would be married forty-five years.

 I asked him if he had any family back home. He said that his parents were dead, so he was all alone. He started to tell me that he was not without money. He got some Indian lands money, not much but some. It was all gone.

“You drink it all away,” I said. As I said this, I realized that in order to help Johnny he had to be sent to detox. He was too far gone to be reasoned with. It was a cold evening, and I wondered where he would to sleep? God’s Love, the city’s homeless shelter? I must admit that I wasn’t sure how close I wanted to get to Johnny.

As we took our leave, I said, “Johnny, you take care of yourself,” and he went to lean on the counter again.

Ash Wednesday was coming up, the beginning of Lent, when we acknowledge our mortality and enter a period of self-examination and repentance by prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on scripture.  As I examined myself, as I consider what I did at Taco del Sol, I was not happy. I saw that I made sure there was a safe distance between myself and Johnny. I bought him a meal, but that did not make me an authentic follower of Jesus Christ. Others in the restaurant may have thought, what a Christian thing to do, to buy that guy a meal. But was that what it meant to be a Christian?  Was that what Jesus taught and did on the way to the cross? Was that the impact he had on those he met or called along the way? 

I honestly don’t know what I would have done differently in my encounter with Johnny. But I do know that there was a distance or barrier between myself and him, and myself and Jesus Christ.