“That Korean guy sure cooks good Chinese food, and he can speak Japanese!”…
“That Chinese guy sure cooks good Korean food, and he can speak Japanese!”…
That is how I have been referred to at times over the years at the Denver Rescue Mission, a facility that cares for the homeless in Denver. I used to try to protest these honorable distinctions, but any more, I just say “yep” and let them go unchallenged. Anyway, it is an unspoken rule at the Mission that no one is to divulge their background or credentials so there is really is no real way to correct the situation. So, I remain the unknown oriental guy who cooks good Chinese food!About 20 years ago, before Nippon Kan began serving meals to the homeless at the Denver Rescue Mission, there were many homeless people that lived close to the old dojo. There was one man in particular that I saw on many occasions, and finally I invited him to the dojo one day for a chat. The old dojo was very close to Cherry Creek, which runs through Denver, and many homeless at that time lived under the many bridges that crossed the creek at various intersections. This particular gentleman lived under one of the bridges close to the dojo. Even though he was homeless, and a chronic alcoholic, when he entered the dojo, he removed his tattered hat and bowed respectfully to the shrine. Even students at the dojo that are taught to bow to the shrine don’t always do so, so this unprompted gesture of respect impressed me.
The first day I brought him to the dojo it was quite cold outside. Since the dojo is not a church or a hospital, I warmed up a small flask of sake (Japanese rice wine) for him to drink. Because he was Hispanic, I thought he might like a Mexican omelet, and offered to make one for him. After I finished making the omelet and heating the sake, I served him and asked him to “eat it while it’s hot”. He did not make a move to eat the omelet or drink the hot sake. A little perplexed, I encouraged him to help himself. He still did not make a move. A little irritated, I thought to myself. “Hey, I went to the trouble to make these things for him, why won’t he eat them? Maybe he is on drugs as well and can’t eat”.
I noticed a small tear in his eye, and with a sniffle, after clearing his throat, he finally replied “Thank you”. After a moment he continued “ Gaku, it has been so long since we have had hot food, that I have forgotten what it is like to enjoy it. For me now, warm food is too hot for my palate. Could I please have a piece of tin foil? I would like to take this with me to eat for my dinner tonight”.
After the sake had cooled, he did drink that down in one big gulp. Once he had finished, he continued talking in a quiet calm voice about many things. “I don’t think my life is good” he said, “but my heart and spirit is not poor. I must understand who it is I am, and what life means to me, and find a way to organize my life”. At that time, Nippon Kan was very poor, and my life seemed to be an uphill struggle. It was the dead of winter, and there was no money for heat. I wore so many layers of clothes, that my arms wouldn’t hang straight at my sides, and I looked like some kind of patchwork snowman. I had been thinking that this was about as miserable an existence a martial artist could create! My homeless guest dashed those thoughts of self-pity to pieces that day. “Wow” I thought, “he is worse off than I am, and yet he doesn’t complain”. The words he spoke to me that day woke me up and made me realize what kind of human spirit he had. His spirit helped me to put my own life into a better perspective.
My guest that day lived under a bridge near the old dojo for three years, surviving bitter winters sleeping outside in the cold, a cold that could easily kill him while he slept. For three years he lived under that bridge, and then one day he disappeared.
It wasn’t until two years later that I received a letter from him. It was a thank you card actually. He spoke of many things, of being a Vietnam vet, of his time being homeless, and of his new career; that of a mail carrier for the US Postal Service.
He was the first homeless person I had known that made it back into the world that most of us live in, and I was duly impressed. It was a great revelation and inspiration for me. The Denver Rescue Mission has served the homeless in Denver for over one hundred years. I am proud to say that next year will by my fourteenth year working monthly there. To date, assisted by Nippon Kan students and friends, we have served over 36,000 meals in our thirteen year history. I have learned a great deal from the men and women I have met there over the years, lessons that I will keep with me for a lifetime.
Life has many detours, sidetracks and sometimes dead ends. Sometimes we take the wrong path, or make mistakes. Someone who walks through life down a straight and narrow path might think that twists and turns, sidetracks and dead ends are a waste of time. I have learned however, that it is the people who have made it, who have struggled with and passed through life’s pitfalls and sidetracks that are closer to knowing the truth about life, more than psychologists, philosophers, religious leaders or even martial artists!
For me, the Rescue Mission is a place where such individuals can be found. I have learned to sometimes recognize the ones that are just pausing there, the ones that have just stopped to rest a while, but will continue on the path to overcome the challenges they face. The Rescue Mission has been a place for me to reflect on my own life in a way that has been invaluable.
Today, once in a while, I run into a “former homeless”, in the oddest places. Walking down the street, I once was stopped by someone who approached me excitedly, “Hey, I remember you. You served me great Chinese food about five years ago at the mission” and went on to give me a big bear hug! Encounters like these make me very happy indeed, and I am most happy for those who seem to have found their way.
I KNOW…there are many talented people who come to the mission for a bed and a meal, people who speak fluent Japanese, or play classical piano, or are experts on the computer. I have talked with those who were more informed about world events than I, and met others whose talents surpass many, and yet I meet these people here. In a lifetime, a time gone astray can be just a blink of an eye. I pray that someday, you will look back at these times in your life and smile. This is my hope for you. If you can hang in there through the bitter days of winter, spring will come. I cannot truly understand your life, your loneliness, or the burdens and woes you carry. These I cannot truly share. But this year too, we will be here. Myself, together with all of the Nippon Kan students, who volunteer their time, will be here to serve you a hot meal to make you feel content for at least one day.
Any one person can start an action, but to continue the effort takes the support of many people. Many thanks to the Denver Rescue Mission for this chance, and to Nippon Kan students for their continued support, as our thirteenth year draws to a close.
Written at the Denver Rescue Mission between the first and second dinner seatings,
January 18th , 2004
Nippon Kan Kancho.