My friends Jim and Betsey are part of a group that feeds Birmingham’s growing population of homeless people. I joined them on his particular Saturday. They feed in excess of 200 people on a given morning, sometimes more depending on the weather. Eggs. Biscuits. Grits. Coffee. A hearty meal for many grateful people.
If there is food remaining after everyone passes through once, they re-open the line for seconds. With the food dwindling and the line of seconds thinning out, a young man came through, a backpack slung over his shoulder. Soft spoken, he asked if there was anything left. While we plated his food, he said that he just got into town. When someone probed as to his mode of transportation, he said: “I ride the rails.”
He took his food to an empty table. I took him another biscuit. He declined. I shared about the Journey and asked if he would be willing to tell his story. Even though he wasn’t traveling on a Greyhound Bus, I’d never known anybody who traveled by boxcar. He was a little hesitant at first, but eventually agreed.
I asked his name and he told me it was Fish. When I asked about the origin of his nickname he said, in a matter-of-fact tone: “I always drank like a fish.” Then, a smile. He continued: “I’ve been drinking since I was six, but I’ve been sober, more or less, for the past ten years.”
Fish was 36 years old. I asked about the train. “I’ve been riding boxcars for about 18 years,” he said. “I can’t think of another way to live. I guess you could call me a nomad.”
Fish shared that he was a Messianic Jew. Messianic Judaism is a movement that combines Christianity with elements of Judaism and Jewish Tradition. Messianic Jews believe that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.
“The second coming is close at hand,” he said. “I travel the country on boxcars to proclaim the truth.”
I wasn’t sure what truth he was proclaiming, but let it pass. “Do you work?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” he said. “But I don’t have ID, so I’m not always welcome in the towns where I stop. And it makes it hard to get a job.”
When I asked if I could take his picture, he held up his hands. “No, the sect I belong to believes that it is evil to have your picture taken. Plus, there are a few people looking for me, so I really don’t want my picture out on the Internet.”
I’m thinking it was more of the latter than the former, but didn’t say anything. His breakfast finished, he begins to gather his belongings. I notice something tattooed on his knuckles and asked if I could take a look. He puts his fists together. The knuckles spell out: FAREWELL. “I’m always saying goodbye,” he says, with a smile.
Then, he reverses his hands, showing me that how the knuckles then say: WELLFARE. Again, he smiles, pointing to his empty plate: “We all need a little welfare once in a while.”
After some coaxing, he let me take a picture of his tattooed knuckles. He then threw his backpack over his shoulder, thanked the staff and started to walk off. I asked where he was going.
“Not sure,” he said. “I really won’t know until I get there.”
With that, Fish put his fists up, showing me his knuckles, his way of saying goodbye: FAREWELL. Then he headed into the Birmingham morning. Fish had a boxcar to catch.