A simple casket with an American flag for Vietnam Veteran Andrew Elmer Wright.
A simple bouquet of flowers was placed with a simple photo a church member snapped.
By all accounts, Andrew was a simple man with simple needs but what was evident today is that Andrew was anything but a "simple" man.
A few days ago I received an email from Chaplain Lyle Schmeiser, DAV Chapter 16, asking for people to attend a funeral for a homeless Vietnam veteran. After posting about funerals for the forgotten for many years across the country, I felt compelled to attend.
As I drove to the Carey Hand Colonial Funeral Home, I imagined an empty room knowing how few people would show up for a funeral like this. All the other homeless veteran stories flooded my thoughts and this, I thought, would be just one more of them.
When I arrived, I discovered the funeral home was paying for the funeral. Pastor Joel Reif, of First United Church of Christ asked them if they could help out to bury this veteran and they did. They put together a beautiful service with Honor Guard and a 21 gun salute by the VFW post.
I asked a man there what he knew about Andrew and his eyes filled. He smiled and then told me how Andrew wouldn't drink the water from the tap. He'd send this man for bottled water, always insisting on paying for it. When the water was on sale, he'd buy Andrew an extra case of water but Andrew was upset because the man didn't use the extra money for gas.
Then Pastor Joel filled in more of Andrew's life. Andrew got back from Vietnam, got married and had children. His wife passed away and Andrew remarried. For some reason the marriage didn't work out. Soon the state came to take his children away. Andrew did all he could to get his children back, but after years of trying, he gave up and lost hope.
A few years ago, after going to the church for help from the food pantry, for himself and his cats, Andrew lost what little he had left. The tent he was living in was bulldozed down in an attempt to clear out homeless people from Orlando. Nothing was left and he couldn't find his cats.
Andrew ended up talking to Pastor Joel after his bike was stolen again, he'd been beaten up and ended up sleeping on church grounds in the doorway. Pastor Joel offered him the shed in the back of the church to sleep in so that he wouldn't have to face more attacks.
The shed had electricity and they put in a TV set, a frying pan and a coffee maker. They wanted to give Andrew more but he said they had already given him enough.
Pastor Joel told of how Andrew gave him a Christmas card with some money in it one year. Pastor Joel didn't want to take money from someone with so little, but Andrew begged him to take it saying "Please, don't take this away from me" because it was all he had to give and it meant a lot to give it to the Pastor. Much like the widow with two cents gave all she had in the Bible, Andrew was truly grateful for what little he had been given from the church.
What was soon made clear is that Pastor Joel gave him even more than he imagined. Andrew took it on himself to be the church watchman. While services were going on after Andrew greeted the parishioners, he would travel around the parking lot to make sure the cars were safe. At night he made sure any guests of the church were equally watched over. Pastor Joel not only gave him a roof over his head and food, he gave him something to make him feel needed.
More and more people came to the service and there was a lot of weeping as Pastor Joel spoke. What was very clear this day is that Andrew was called a homeless veteran but he was not homeless. He found one at the church. He lost his family and his children, but he found a family at the church.
From what was said about Andrew, he was a Vietnam veteran with PTSD and he wanted no help from the VA. Too many of them feel the same way and they live on the streets, depending on the kindness of strangers to help them out. Andrew wasn't one of the panhandlers we see in Orlando. He refused to beg for money and he wanted to work for whatever he was given. His health got worse but he still did what he could. Right up until March 16, 2010 when Andrew passed away, no matter what happened to him during his life, Andrew proved that this veteran was not hopeless, not helpless because he found the fulfillment of hope in the arms of strangers who took him in and he found help as he asked as well as gave.
The legacy of this homeless veteran is that he touched the lives of so many hearts and will never be forgotten.
Behind this church, in a tiny shed, Andew spent his last hours on this earth. Born in Riverside Park NJ on November 5, 1938 he returned to God on March 16, 2010.
In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,
36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'