Believing that God is within each person and each thing on this earth, I had to stand in reverence, with humor and wonder at the actions that transpired on a sunny Friday afternoon in May on a busy downtown Chicago street corner.
My wife Jennie and I took the train from Milwaukee to Chicago in order to attend the Van Gough exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute. We loved the exhibit and afterward, we had some time to kill while waiting for the next train home.
We walked to a Barnes & Noble bookstore located at the corner of Jackson and State Street where there is a comfortable little pocket park for students and pedestrians to sit and relax. It is a busy intersection in downtown Chicago, but the storefront park offers shade and plenty of benches to sit and watch the marvel and diversity of humanity pass by. Sharing the park with us was a group of seven college students, an older man working a Chicago Tribune crossword puzzle, a half dozen pigeons and a woman who was obviously homeless. She had a deep tan, one that you can only get from spending a lot of time outdoors. Her graying blond hair was tied severely back into a tight pony tail and her skin had a greasy shine of someone who had not bathed recently. She sat about fifteen feet away from me, smoking a cigarette. We were near one of the elevated train platforms. Each time there was a squeal of metal on metal as the train passed overhead, the homeless woman stood up and yelled incoherently while looking up in the general direction of the train, using her cigarette to violently gesture towards the clouds in the blue sky.
A group of five young men appeared and sat down on the sidewalk just off the corner. One had a turban, two had beards and the others were clean shaven. One had a drum. Another took out finger cymbals and they all began to sing the Hare Krishna chant:
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hari Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
They were talented and had obviously done this before. They altered the pitch and the meter of the chant, using the drum to set the beat and the cymbals to accent the sound. The chant became a mesmerizing prayer. The Krishna’s believe that the chant brings them in direct contact with god in proportion to the purity of those doing the chanting. In essence, these young men were calling god to be present on this people rich Chicago street corner.
I was content to sit and quietly take it all in, letting the chant carry me along when I noticed that one of the pigeons had a peg leg. The bird’s foot was missing, lopped off where I imagine its ankle would be. It didn’t seem to bother the pigeon which was walking around pecking at the ground, searching for food. A man, wearing a blue hat that matched his blue belt which matched his blue shoes, walked through the crowd causing the pigeons to scatter, but not fly away. He was eating a donut and carrying a Dunkin Donuts bag. After walking through the crowd he stopped, turned around and began to walk though again. On his return, he stopped at the peg legged pigeon and upended his Dunkin Donuts bag, dropping a new glazed donut onto the pavement in front of the bird and not quite three feet from the gentleman working on his crossword puzzle.
The pigeon hopped backward, away from the donut and then hopped forward to inspect it. She pecked the pastry and hopped back. She hopped forward and pecked the pastry again. She repeated this nibbling process nearly a half dozen times when the crossword puzzle man unexpectedly stood up and muttered “I’ve had enough of this” and kicked at the donut, sending it and the pigeon flying away. He kicked the donut again and then again. The last punt sent the donut sliding like a hockey puck a good ten feet across the dirty sidewalk, landing right in front of the homeless woman. She immediately looked down at the donut and then looked around as if she was trying to figure out how this gift appeared in front of her. She lifted her bulging dirty orange backpack to the ground next to the donut and pretended to look for something inside of it. Taking another quick look around, she grabbed the donut and brought it swiftly to her mouth. She held the donut between her teeth and with her cigarette in one hand and her backpack in the other she scurried through the crowed and down the street past the still chanting Krishna’s.
I’ve thought about this scene many times since that Friday afternoon. It was just too rich in images and symbols to be forgotten. I wondered, what is God saying here? Why was I present to witness this? What is the deeper meaning of it all?
At first, I wondered if this little episode was all staged by God to send me a message. I know – quite the ego, right? When I thought about that, I had a pretty good laugh on myself. But I do believe there are at least three lessons to be learned.
Note: The picture attached to this post is of Van Gough’s paint pallet and was taken with an iphone at the Chicago Art Institute
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.