I'm trailing the youth from our fellowship down Yonge Street, the last of the light seeping out of the autumn gold of the trees. I dig my hands deeper into pockets and warm. The grey chill's creeping in, up the wet pavement. It's going to be a long, damp night out here.
A wild mane of graying hair, he's standing, back to me, in front of the Yonge Street Mission front entrance. It's him, his tribe, we've come to minister to, to be ministered to. Tonight's not about what too often happens — us getting to where we're going, walking wide of the crumpled hurt, looking the other way. Tonight's about the street and its people, their stories. About us each finding Christ in the other. Before I reach the entrance, he steps out in front of me, walks towards our cluster of kids. His buddy stays in the shadows, swigging long out of a 1 liter pop bottle. I feel something inside tighten, twist.
Marisa and Hadassah and Erica are up ahead, huddled together, hands drawn up into warmth of coat sleeves, waiting for staff from Center for Student Missions to meet us, give us directions for the night. Tyler and Dan and J.D. are closer to the street, checking out models of cars blurring by in thickening twilight. I can hear Dan's voice above the others, "Catch that little beemer? Sweet." Kids mingle, joke, laugh, wait.
I'm a few steps behind this bulk of back and tangled hair, watching our kids already gathered up there on the street. And I see him pull down a mask. He's pulling down a mask, walking into the center of them.
I walk faster.
I can see his hands gesticulating, but from behind him, I can't make out his words, words muffled under the plastic of the clown's mask. Yet over his shoulder, I can see the uneasiness of Marisa's eyes and see Hadassah's ashen face. Then I catch a phrase.
"Why you think I'm wearing this %*$#& mask? Hey? Why?"
Hadassah's stepping back. The raspy voice yells louder, leans into these home schooled, mostly farm kids.
"Why would I wear a *$%# mask like this?"
Tyler's not watching vehicles. Lean and lanky, sunglasses hanging from the neck of his jersey, he shifts from one foot to the other. Erica scuffs her shoe at the crack in the sidewalk. None of us know what to do with this. It's not on the itinerary.
Then this man rips the mask from his face and the blade of his howl slashes at us all stiffened to this spot here.
"I'm wearing the &%$#& mask to mask my feelings."
He shakes the painted rubber face in his hand. "I'm masking the real me! Know what I mean?"
I want to raise a hand to my own face, see if I can peel off mine.
There are more words, drifting ones, but I can't hear them. I can see his wide shoulders seem to slump, shudder. Erica looks up. Tyler chews his lip. And the night air on Yonge Street, with the traffic still whistling by, fills with this guttural moan, this pitched wail. It's the exposing of a naked soul. He's crying. Sobbing. I catch snatches ... "I'm so *&$**# up ... Jesus ... Savior ... need ... know what I mean? ... Just so ... Jesus ... Lord ... know what I mean?"
Bared, he writhes, storms past me, a flurry of tears, hair, hands. A mother in the group calls softly after, "Jesus loves you ..."
He stops. Half turning, he tries to steady his voice between the wracking of sadness, tries to find the face that went with that voice. "Yeah, He does. And He loves you too, lady."
The wind whips at his hair and he blusters down the street.
If the story had ended there, we would have had questions, knots I'd have worked long at loosening, and his face, that mask held up in clenched fist, would have lurked in memory alleys of that night. But God has more on the itinerary.
Later, we run into him again at the door of the mission. His mask's still in hand.
His eyes dart, desperate, driven. He's not done. He stands in the middle of the street, blocking the way of our Street Mission worker. There's more to this story, lines he's got wrong, parts we haven't understood. Do we have time to listen?
"Hey, I'm sorry, okay, lady? I've got issues, know what I mean? I'm like, bipolar."
His buddy spews his drink, mocking. "You're not bipolar." Like graffiti, the label's smeared across the coming dark, a cuss word. But the scoffing doesn't deter. It's us he's got to say something to, whatever this is.
"Hey, I'm *&%$#* messed up, man. Look at me!" He steps into the company of young people. Some look away. "Look at me!" His rage shakes us.
So I look. His nose is crooked, busted up somewhere, healed all wrong. His mouth clings to a few brown teeth. His skin's pocked, ruddy, and his eyes look like a childhood friend's. Maybe he's my age.
"I'm a **%$& retard. Fried my brain on crack, know what I mean? Gotta pacemaker in here." He pounds his chest. "OD'ed just down there," he waves his hand, "and it took them five hours to find me. Don't do crack, know what I mean?" His eyes are fiery, searching the faces of these country kids.
"Don't get &*%*$# messed up like I did. Love your mom and dad cuz they love you, know what I mean?" He's choking back emotion.
I wonder where his mom and dad are — if they know he's here, like this, if they care that he's in all this strangling torture.
He's in Erica's face.
But this, this is what we came for. But we didn't think it'd be like this.
Erica manages a slight shake of the head.
"Who's got a Bible?" he hollers at us all.
I'd had one in my small backpack all weekend, but for tonight's street walk, we'd been instructed to bring no money, and I'd left everything back in a locked church basement.
He rummages in his duffle bag. Kids look at each other. But we don't move.
He shoves a dog-earred red Gideon's Bible at Erica.
"Read Romans 7:14 to Romans 8."
"Louder. So they can all hear you!"
Then comes Erica's voice, calmed by these words she knows and the Person in them.
"... I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do ..."
And a low bass throbs.
It's his voice. He's mumbling the words from memory, his eyes penetrating, his hand keeping beat with each word Erica reads, "... but I hate what I do."
I still inside, rapt. His cerebellum's scorched with fraudulent relief and yet these words are branded deeper, right into his core.
"... I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature." He slurs some of the words, stumbles. Erica reads on and he marks each word with a swaying hand, his voice echoing hers, "For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out."
He's rocking his whole body to the cadence of ancient words, this cry that his flesh weeps. He turns my way and I look into tearing eyes, begging eyes ... "What a wretched man that I am!"
He's peeled it all off and here stands the cold, bare skin of a soul. I can hardly look.
Then there's an exchange of words that I can't hear, our mission worker saying something, nodding and he muttering something in return. Then our group spills past, escapes. And when I, the last one, trickle past, he makes eye contact, asks, "Did I get it right this time?"
Something right. Did I get something, anything, in this busted body right? Do I do any of the good I long to do? The plea madly tugs. Doesn't it echo off the walls of humanity?
I can't fix the consequences of his past, but I can nod, look in deep. "Thank you." I say the words slowly, hoping they soak into his pores. He'd wanted to share hope and Jesus with us. Had his second encounter got it right? I don't know really, but this heart knew the howl of his, and I nod again. "Thank you for sharing."
Into the Toronto night we walk, carrying glimpses of Christ we'd see in the other. For isn't the worst kind of homelessness these masks we wear — homes outside of Christ?
Later that weekend, I'd come home, pull back clean sheets, tuck my own boys into peace. And, with no warning, little Malakai's lip would waver and tears brim, and when I pulled him close, he'd whimper words I didn't know where they came from, or why then. "I just sin so much, Mom. I can't even remember all the sins and bad things I've done." His chest would heave and the words lurch out. "I ... just ... sin ... so ... much."
And I'd hold him and gently say the last verses, ones a wild man groaned, "Who will rescue ... from this body of death? Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:25).
On a Sunday night while the rain fell, I'd hold my little Kai and let him cry into me, and stroke his still-soft cheek. And I'd think how names don't matter, about how we are all the same under all these masks, and of a nameless man, somebody's boy too, and me too, with my own messiness and brokenness.
We're all just wretched ones clutching, unmasked and naked, to the Cross where He hung naked, our only hope.
"Thanks be to God ..."