I would like to introduce you to a truly unique Bearded Gospel Man.
The first time I saw him, he was passed out in the grass, sprawled across the ground like a great, fallen oak.
Chris and I were handing out sandwiches in the park. It was my first summer in Modesto, and we were still finding our way in “ministry to the homeless”.
“I’ll take one for ‘im,” one of his buddies said, “I’ll give it to him later.”
We left him with a little lunch bag and a bottled water.
The next time I saw him, he was sitting at the picnic table, drunk and pathetic. We were handing out day-old bread and pastries from our ambulance. Every Thursday, we came down to the park with a load of bread and pastries we received from the local gospel mission. We packed stacks and stacks of boxes into our ministry vehicle: an old, gutted ambulance someone had donated to us. We affectionately called her Big Whitey.
I stood outside Big Whitey, as volunteers and friends helped to direct the large crowd of people toward their bread and desserts. I noticed him sitting at the picnic table looking rather forlorn. I went and sat down across from him.
“Hey, man,” I said. “You doin’ okay? Can I get you something?”
He looked up at me with the biggest, saddest, grey-blue eyes I’d ever seen. “Can I have a pie?”
“Sure,” I smiled. “I can get you a pie. Hold on a sec.” And I went to the van to recover an apple pie for the man. I set it down on the picnic table.
“Thank-you!” he blubbered.
“Are you okay, man? What’s troubling you?” I asked.
He began to weep, and as he spoke, the big man’s voice took on the squeak of a crying little boy. “I lost my keys!” he said. “I’m stayin’ in my sister’s back yard and I got drunk and I lost my keys!”
“I’m sorry,” I replied.
“She’ll be so mad at me. I’m in a camper in her yard and I lost my keys cuz I got drunk!”
“It’s okay, man. It’ll be okay. Would you like me to get you a pie for your sister?” I asked.
He blubbered and whimpered. “Yeah!”
A moment later I came back with another apple pie, and he wept out another “Thank-you!”
“My name’s Aaron, by the way,” and I offered him my hand.
“Aaron?” he sniffed, “I’m Arley.” He pointed at his left hand. There, on the back of his hand, was written in childlike script, “A – r -L – I – e”.
“I did that when I was fourteen,” he sniffed. “I spelled it wrong.”
“But it’s a good way to remember who you are,” I said. “It’s always right there.”
Arley hrumphed. “You got a cigarette?”
“Actually, I do.”
I had begun carrying a pack of cigarettes with me. Personally, I mostly stuck to my trusty pipe, but I found that having a cigarette handy was a great way of starting a conversation with a homeless person. I pulled out two cigarettes and placed them on the picnic table. Arley scooped up my hands into his big, calloused mitts, and broke down weeping.
“Thank-you, man! Oh, thank-you!” he cried.
“That’s okay, Arley,” I replied. “That’s okay.”
The next time I saw Arley, he was sober. I think it was the first time I’d actually seen him standing up. He was in the park, and he walked with the gait of a grizzly bear on two legs.
“I’m doin’ a lot better today,” he said. “I ain’t been drunk seen the last time you saw me.”
As he spoke, I heard a calm southern drawl come out, one that I hadn’t heard in the slurred speech of the drunk I’d first met. Arley told me he was from Arkansas, and I began to learn more about him. Though he’d been born here in California at a migrant workers camp straight out of The Grapes of Wrath, his family had moved back to Arkansas when he was still very little. He was the last of twelve kids. His life had taken him everywhere from oil rigs to Folsom Prison, and even though he’d been in Modesto for a long time now, he called himself a hobo. As I saw him more and more at the park, sometimes drunk and sometimes sober, I learned more and more of his story. Sometimes I had cigarettes to give him, and sometimes I rolled his rollies for him, because he was too drunk to roll them himself. When he was sober, he was relatively at peace, but when he was drunk, he was the same weeping mess I’d first met.
It was on one of his drunk days, with tears streaming down his face, that he would ask me what became the most important question of our friendship.
“Can you get me a Bible?”
“Of course, Arley. I’d be happy to.”
A week later, I presented him with a good translation I’d found with big, readable letters. He was sober, but he thanked me and thanked me and thanked me with the earnestness of a drunk.
Over the next few weeks, I’d see him from time to time. We’d sit down at the picnic table. I’d give him a couple of cigs, and we’d talk.
“Man, those Psalms,” he’d say, shaking his head slightly and looking off to the sky over my left shoulder, “Those are powerful. Powerful.”
When I first got to know Arley, he was drunk, bad drunk, just about every other time I saw him. But something was changing, and soon I began to see “sober Arley” much more often than “drunk Arley”.
One day, when I was off on one of my adventures, sober Arley was talking with Jimmy about those Psalms. He stared off into the sky above Jimmy’s left shoulder. When his eyes came back to meet Jimmy’s, there was a tear in one of them. “He bought me that Bible with his own money,” he said.
Arley loved to read it, and every time I’d see him, he’d speak in that gentle drawl of his, like a cowboy addressing his horse. “That’s quite a book,” he’d say. “Powerful, powerful stuff.”
I wondered if that book, like the tattoo on his hand, was beginning to remind him of who he really was.
Months later, I sat next to Arley at a barbecue the church was putting on for the homeless community. Chris was singing with his blues band, a band that came together for events such as this. He was belting out a song about heaven, as the song came to its crescendo, Arley turned and looked me straight in the eye and offered his hand.
“Hi,” he said, “My name is Arley Preston Robinson, child of God and True Believer in the Lord Jesus Christ!”
“Hi, Arley,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”
I began writing this story this morning, and between that last sentence and this one, I received a call from Chris. Arley has now passed away. I was able to see him just last week, and we were able to spend some quality time together over about two days.
Years ago he had moved out of the camper that had been permanently parked in his sister’s back yard, and had instead created a little dwelling place for himself back there. He called it the Hobo Shack. Last week, I came to the Hobo Shack to see him.
“Come on in,” he said. And there he was, the fallen oak, reclining on the couch that also served as his bed, in the tiny but homey hovel he called his house. We chatted for a while, and then he said, “I want to give you somethin’ for your birthday. You wasn’t here but I want to give you somethin’.”
He pulled out a small package, wrapped in paper towel and electrical tape. I tore it open to find his gift. A pack of Marlboros and a pink Bic lighter. For years now, his running joke had been to give me “Pinky” whenever he bought a pack of lighters.
I laughed. “Pinky! Thanks, man!”
We spent the afternoon together. I knew he had been ill over the last few months, but I was a bit alarmed to see how little energy he had. It had really taken its toll. But underneath it he was still himself, the irascible curmudgeon and S.O.B. who truly loved the God who had saved him.
He always liked people to think he was still mean, but his kindness knew depths unmatched by many. I watched him pray tenderly with a mentally ill man who had remembered an act of kindness Arley had done unto him years before. I saw him seek out gifts for my friends’ children. And on my birthday, that last year before I left Modesto, he even let me beat him at dominos.
My first gifts to him were pie and cigarettes. His last gifts to me were Pinky and a pack of Marlboros.
Thank-you, Arley, for helping me to learn what love is. Thank-you for being a true and loyal friend.
Welcome to that Heaven Chris was singing about.
Arley Preston Robinson, child of God and True Believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, welcome to the Heaven you were made for.