December 12, 2012

Mercy Street

I sit on the concrete floor at the corner of Mercy and Carroll streets. It’s dark. I’m with my friend Dan, who owns the gas station on Mercy Street. There’s no sign for the street, but early one morning before class I stopped to put gas in my car, and Dan came out from his warm store and asked what I was doing on Mercy Street. Mercy Street?

Dan always seems to go the extra mile for his customers. He checks the air pressure on an elderly couple’s tires, cleans windshields while you pump gas. By default it is my favorite gas station. Not just because Dan is a good guy, but also because there are three wooden picnic tables (each with wooden cathedral-type ceilings) just behind the gas station. He told me he built the tables for people to enjoy. Who does that?

Yes, it is my favorite gas station. Except for today. Today we are waiting for something. Two days ago, when I stopped by the gas station, Dan said he had something for the “column you write each month, Dixil” (he reads Adventist Review?). So here we are, waiting.
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From a distance I see a small light. A flashlight? Is someone headed our way? Twenty men. Some men wear jackets and others wear T-shirts, hiding their arms inside their T-shirts trying to stay warm. I hear voices speaking in Spanish. I can hear them talking about their families, children, jobs.

Dan abandons me and walks into his store. The men greet Dan, and through the store windows I observe. Dan is packing them lunches. Everyone is getting food, yet nobody takes advantage of Dan’s generosity. They take only what they need and remind Dan that they “have enough for today.” Before the men leave the store, Dan hands out a few steel thermoses. Are they for something warm to drink?

As he rejoins me on the hard sidewalk, Dan tells me that five years ago he built the picnic tables behind the gas station for the workers. Workers?

He tells me they are all legal residents of the state, with several jobs and low wages. Most serve as janitors in the evenings. After working at night, they sit at the picnic tables and wait for someone to hire them for a day of labor.

As we talk, I see a truck pull up close to the picnic tables. A man gets out of the vehicle and yells: “I need five men who can work on drywall today. Five only.”  I watch as the workers negotiate among themselves: “Go, your daughter needs to go to the doctor” and “You haven’t had a chance to work in three days; go do this.” They are helping one another, although the need for work weighs heavily on all of them. There is no greed here.

I watch as five workers jump on the back of the truck, thank their friends, huddle, and share cups of a hot beverage from the thermos, trying to beat the morning chill as they drive away in the back of the pickup.

Dan watches them leave, sees the need every day. He tells me that as he gets older, things look different. Yet every day his prayer is quite simple: “Here I am; send me and use me, God.” Is this why they call it Mercy Street?

“You know, Jesus was a carpenter,” says Dan. “In my own humble opinion I think there must have been a moment Jesus built or fixed something for people who needed it, and never charged them; just because it was the right thing to do.” Dan’s gaze falls on the picnic tables, on the 15 more men looking for work today. This is humbling.

“Jesus’ example was clear. He died for us, and I haven’t gotten the bill for that, but I certainly got the message of what Christians have to do: share the message; find those who need to know about God,” he says. “Sometimes that means starting with something as little as sharing food. Maybe that’s the ‘bill,’ so to speak. What we are left with.”

I am gently reminded of the obvious task of life, cognizant that I am sitting on Mercy Street. 

Dixil Rodríguez, a university professor and volunteer hospital chaplain, lives in north Texas. Join the dialogue at [email protected]. This article was published December 13, 2012.