Robert is dead. We do not have exact details, but we heard it was his heart. Rumors and hearsay have clouded the issue. We think the service is Saturday at St. James. Lots of people "have heard" but nothing is set in stone.
Robert was, in simplest terms, an icon. He was a bald headed black man, often seen riding his bike on the streets of Collierville, and just as often biking down Poplar Avenue in Germantown (some thirteen miles away) all the way into Memphis (a thirty mile jaunt). A priest friend of mine who worked in the city was familiar with him. He was as close to a street person as Collierville has. How, you may ask, was such a man an icon? He constantly spoke of God, Jesus and faith. I always saw Jesus whenever I saw Robert. He was a witness to Jesus as well as one of the "least, last, and lost" through whom Jesus is present. Robert was a sign of Jesus among us.
I am not sure exactly when I first met him. I had been here for a while, maybe a year. I know he attended an evening service once, it was dark as I saw him walking off. I called out to him; I try to show hospitality to visitors and a black man stands out in our little church. He simply lifted an arm to wave, without turning back, and continued on his way. (That lifted arm was a gesture which, aside from his smile and laugh, I most associate with Robert. I saw it many, many times) It was many months later that he began to appear more regularly. He would show up at Sunday services, always late, and then became a regular at MP (morning prayer). I wish our members came as often as Robert did. This has all been going on now for at least eight years. As his comfort level increased, he began reciting his own long prayers during the appropriate time in the period for petitions near the end of the MP service. His prayers would sometimes go on and on, but I always felt convicted by his love of God and simple faith (though often it was hard to discern what he was saying, beyond a string of religious words and indistinguishable syllables).
For much of his time among us his mouth was a collection of empty spaces and gaps. His wide face and large ears, coupled with that toothlessness often appeared thoughtful and pained. It is hard to know exactly what took place inside that head. As I said, he often talked but was never totally clear. However, his visage could also explode with delight and his laughter and big grin indicated he had a sense of humor, even if at times he seemed to be the only one in on the joke. He laughed much of the time and interacted with people here like an old friend. Even when those people had never met or seen him.
In time he came to know the names of many of our staff. We regularly gave him food at parish functions (he always managed to appear at such times). He also was beneficiary of countless donations from kindly parishioners who provided him his daily bread. In addition, our more official ministry to the needy gave him gift cards to local establishments. These gifts were measured, he did not receive something every time. It is the nature of a small church's outreach to deal with demand which outstrips supply. [Memphis has lots of poor and needy. A million dollars could disappear in a matter of weeks.]
When my kids were young and we were driving places they would recognize him. Before we knew his name we simply referred to him as "the walking man." On a few occasions we gave him rides and fed him. The kids learned to have affection for this man who was so different from most of our friends and neighbors. One day Madison suggested that we buy him a bike. I thought it a great idea. The next time we saw him he had a bike. Somehow the idea must have been shared by others, who acted first. A couple years ago he was riding that bike and was hit by a car. He was airlifted to the Med. Somehow he survived. I remember the first time he came back, in the same good humor, proclaiming his faith in God.
While Robert was hard to understand, most of what he said had to do with love and God. He was simple. His words were challenging. I can still hear him walking, repeating over and over "Yes, Lord!" He often told me "I don't boost and I don't brag" (the word boost always struck me) and then he proceeded to talk about God. He called me father, many people do, but he always added "Son and Holy Spirit." He seemed incapable of using the word Father without mention of the Trinity. At communion he never said, "Amen." He would just repeat, over and over, "thank you, Father, thank you." I think he was addressing me, but I hope it was God.
Robert's gratitude to God seeped out of him. One parishioner wrote an amazing reflection on trust. This man shared with me that the only word he ever understood that Robert said was trust. In a recent, harrowing experience, this same man said every time he was worried about something he brought Robert to mind, and his message of trust. That same man's experience of God's hand at work reinforced how sufficient trust in God could be. Robert had so little, trust in God was his only option. That is why he became as icon. He was an example of trust.
Robert had another side, he was no angel. I know he was arrested for shop lifting, and probably numerous times for vagrancy. He would disappear for weeks at a time, perhaps to serve time. Some years ago he showed up with a mouth full of teeth, compliments of the dental department at the penal farm. Sometimes parishioners had a negative encounter, on a few occasions a request for cash got more aggressive. He was on his best behavior around the church, but he got around and when he met parishioners elsewhere they did not see the "same" Robert all of the time. So what, we are all flawed. Would I expect a man living as Robert did to never have a bad day? I have my own collection of faults and failings to confess.
Robert attended our church, the Roman Catholic church, the Methodist Church and the Baptist church each Sunday. He also came here on Saturdays. This is what I have heard for sure. I would guess there were others. He could disrupt a service when he began clapping and talking out loud "Yes, Lord! Amen!" On occasion I would have to say "Robert, please be quiet." I do not preach with notes so my train of thought gets derailed. Others would be distracted. The week before last he showed up in church in a pair of pajamas. As always, they looked nice and neat. His constant change of clothes were one of the mysteries about him. Last week, he was in suit and tie. Several people told me when I announced his death that they had talked to him and he was quieter than usual. He had eaten his plate of food quietly by himself. I did not see him except in passing. I was dealing with a good bye to our three retiring staff. Little did I know a fourth was also making his last appearance.
It is not unusual for street people to become familiar. In the 1980's there was a long haired man many called Jesus, who walked the midtown Memphis area. There was another guy, more scarey, who talked to himself. In more recent years a large black man with a loaded grocery cart wandered the same environs. Most of these types are non-social. Not Robert. I think I know why his brain was diminished, I know he had a wife and kids from a time when his function was higher. Perhaps he became a better man when he lost it all and was reduced to the marginal existence which I saw the last decade. Whatever the case, it is God to judge, not me. I do know I will miss him, even if there were times when i avoided dealing with him in my busy day. I always knew that Robert was an icon on Jesus. A reminder of the total abandonment to trust in God. The constant repetition of thanks and praise. The constant declaration of God's glory.
Collierville will be a less magical place without him. He added something, which ironically is more than can be said for many of us white-middle-class-and-successful types who are busy with so many "important" things. Rest in Peace Robert. Thanks for all you taught us. May you enjoy the fullness of God's presence in eternity.