He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother

by Esther Mcgraw
(It was written for her English class. We are reprinting it here, entire and unedited to give one teenager’s perspective on what we do.)

For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve gone with my dad to Philadelphia to feed the homeless. Every Thursday night, we meet a group called The King’s Jubilee outdoors near Logan Square to help serve food on park benches. Cranford, the amazing man who is in charge of the group, has run this service for twenty years. He loves to tell the story about how The King’s Jubilee started. “For four years,” He relates, “I worked full time as a volunteer prison chaplain and coordinated the work of over five hundred volunteers in ten separate prison populations in Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties and Graterford State Prison.” While serving there, he learned about the “glaring disparities between rich and poor, whites and blacks and browns, suburbs and city.” He decided that to make a difference, he would have to personally take action. People at Graterford told him that if he wants to help, he could help care for the homeless in Philadelphia, and he decided that this was his call.

Cranford always tells a great story. He’s the kind of guy who always has a funny or interesting fact and a good story to tell us. Altogether, he is an interesting man. He’s in his 50’s, wears perfectly round, thick-rimmed glasses, and has curly gray hair and a white and gray beard. He’s tall and well-built and sometimes wears a wide brimmed hat and long, black overcoat, which perfects his already-unique image. When he was younger, he was a pastor, and many of the people we serve still call him “father” or “pastor.” They love to ask for his prayers, talk to him, and tell him their story.

One man on the street, Fred, who has become a good friend of mine, also loves to tell stories, especially ones about his life in “da hood”. He has never told me his age, or if he has, I don’t recall it, but he must be in his late 30’s or 40’s. He looks like your average African American man. He claims to be rather short, “shorter than all my older sisters” who, from his description, are rather tall women. He can fix a bicycle with a snap of his finger and he has fixed or restored many of the bikes that the other homeless men ride. He is good at working with his hands and interacting with people and has become famous… well, famous on the streets at least. When we serve, he keeps everyone in order, making sure nobody budges in line or gets “outta pocket”. He always saves food back for “the stragglers” as he calls them, and sure enough, there is often somebody who comes late, who is overjoyed because he gets dinner after a long, hard day of work. Fred tells us a story about a time long ago when he was very, very hungry after a hard day, and couldn’t find any food. He hadn’t eaten for days, and finally came across an abandoned house and found a single can of peas, which he gratefully devoured. A single can of peas. Anyway, now, he saves food for people who come late because he never wants to see a man as hungry as he was that night.

Fred gave me a nickname, “Trooper”, though when he says it; it sounds more like “Chooper”. When somebody asks him why, he says, “Because when other girls come out here, they only come down on the nice warm nights, ‘Chooper here, now she comes down on the rainy, cold nights all the same.”

“Ahh,” they say, and from then on, call me Trooper as well.

“I ain’t scared of you,” he jokes with my older sister when she comes down. “Chooper, though, I’m scared of her,” he adds with a smile.

One night he says to me “‘Chooper, did you see that news article in the Philadelphia Inquirer?” When I told him that I hadn’t, he told me to look it up when I got home.

I found the article he was talking about, called “Decorum on the Parkway”. It tells of a group of people who are upset by the large numbers of homeless men on the streets. But, no, they are not upset by all the men’s suffering, but rather about the appearance of the long lines of people who are gathering to have their one meal of the day on Thursday nights. Because, as they say, “People look out of the nearby Four Seasons Hotel and see the “aggressive behavior of homeless people.” Their solution? To gather all of the homeless people and put them in one place, limiting where they’re allowed to be. Yes, this is their “humane solution” as they call it, to hide the poverty of Philadelphia so that nothing is done about it. Not only this, they’re also proposing that anyone who feeds the homeless be licensed and “that the feedings should be confined to areas with sanitation facilities.” What, may I ask, is wrong with sharing our meal with people, who we consider our friends?

Though most of the people we serve are men, there are a few women. One of them, an older Chinese woman sometimes shows up. Every once in a while, she talks to us, but often we find her pacing back and forth muttering something in her native language. She cries, she smiles, but she hardly ever speaks more than a few words. I can tell she has been through many hard years. I’ve never seen her with any family or friends, and Fred tells me that he has tried to help her. He says he tried to give her clothes because she always wears the same thing, but she refuses. She declines everything except food we offer. Fred shakes his head and tells me something that almost makes me shudder. He says that, right before winter, he looks around at all the faces, memorizing them, because he knows that some of them won’t make it through to spring. It’s a sad truth. I have noticed people disappearing, whether it’s because they didn’t make it or because they found a place to live, I don’t know.

If I had to find one word to describe the homeless men that we serve, it would be faithful. Years ago, I remember a man telling us a story about one rainy Thursday night. He says that it was raining so hard you could hardly see anything two feet in front of you, much less out of a car’s windshield. He says that as he was waiting for us, a young man walks up and waits with him for a few minutes. “Yo, man, he ain’t coming.” The young man says.

“Sure he is.” The other man says back, “he always comes.” The young man shakes his head and waits a few more minutes before leaving. Sure enough, about five minutes after the young man leaves Cranford pulls up, windshield wipers on full blast.

Rain is one thing that never helps us. It soaks us and makes us shiver; it causes fewer to come, both homeless and helpers; and it makes driving harder and more dangerous. However, so often, it would be pouring rain the whole hour down to Philadelphia. Then, through that one hour when we served, it would only sprinkle if not stop. The whole way back home, it would go back to raining. My dad and I muse over this; sure that it’s a miracle every time.

Feeding the homeless is and has been a great experience. I’ve met so many different kinds of people that I never would have thought I’d meet. I’ve heard many different people’s stories, both happy and sad ones. It’s something I find I enjoy doing and would miss if I had to stop. It’s not something that my conscience forces me to do. As Cranford says “What we do is not burdensome or sacrificial any more than having family is burdensome or sacrificial. ‘He ain’t heavy. He’s my brother.'”

Thanks, Esther for joining in The King’s Jubilee!