Finding Humanity

Homeless man hands

Our church is located downtown and so it’s not uncommon for some unique characters to be wandering the area. Last night as we were about to begin practice for worship on Sunday when a man wandered in through the back doors so I made my way to the foyer to see how I could help him. His shoulder length salt/pepper hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail. His clothes were layered and worn and his breath smelled strongly of smoke and alcohol. He explained he was looking for the Catholic church that takes people in. I wasn’t sure which one he was talking about and when my husband (who had joined me in the back) mentioned there was another organization that houses people overnight he quickly and emphatically informed us that “he won’t go there!”

It was at this point that the conversation took an…interesting turn. It began with him telling us that he wasn’t homeless and that he was in town for work with a private security agency. Up until this point there was part of me that thought perhaps there was some truth to what he was saying but after this the story escalated beyond what I could have imagined.

The lines of his stories blurred between working for past presidents, attending George H.W. Bush’s burial after he “was shot,” rebuilding “one of the Statues of Liberty”, contributing to the new Star Wars movie, needing to get to such-and-such highway because he has a shipment of 200,000 gallons of oil coming in, and the 12 million dollar paycheck he has coming from the government because he killed one of the four ISIS members that are currently here in town.

If you didn’t follow any of that you’re in good company.

Now, I’m pretty well acquainted with this sort of encounter. When I was 19 years old I spent 3 months living in the Tenderloin Disctrict of San Francisco as a part of YWAM. Just out our front door was a large community of people whose daily existence greatly differed from mine in most ways.

Even with the extent of the homelessness in SF it’s still pretty dang easy to spend a day in the city with blinders on to the poverty and need by strategically planning which streets to visit and which to avoid. But not in YWAM. We were confronted with it daily. Have you seen Pursuit of Happyness? Remember the scene where Will Smith and his son are in line with hundreds of people outside of Glide Memorial Church waiting to get a place to sleep for the night? That was our street. We couldn’t conveniently structure our day to avoid coming face to face with the need at our doorstep. And we weren’t trying to either. We learned their names. We sat with them and listened to their stories. We heard about the careers and families they had lost and the dreams they had long since laid to rest.

My husband and I met at an inner-city church plant. We wandered the streets talking and praying with people that had no permanent address and those whose lives were filled with drugs, alcohol, mental illness and abuse. We discipled prostitutes. We worshiped alongside drug dealers and pimps. It was raw and ridiculously messy. It was unpredictable and unstable.

Through these experiences we learned to see people as people. To see past the brokenness. To look beyond the mistakes and flaws, however grievous they may have been and we saw in them something of ourselves.

Our shared humanity.

Now seven years removed from that environment I confess I’ve gotten much better at putting my blinders on and rerouting to avoid those uncomfortable situations (a fact I’m not proud of). But every once in awhile it becomes unavoidable. Like last night.

We get so good at avoiding these situations because if we look someone in the eye and see their suffering we are compelled to acknowledge their humanity. And if we acknowledge their humanity it leaves us feeling responsible to do something. And if we don’t feel we can help in any measurable ways it leaves us feeling helpless.

Helpless is not a feeling we as humans enjoy. So we strive to avoid it at all costs.

Last night I struggled to bury the feelings of helplessness I was experiencing. I certainly could not cure his mental illness (likely schizophrenia). A few bucks or some food provides a bit of relief, but what really is that in the grand scheme of this man’s life? I felt helpless.

So I did what I knew I could do. I listened. We listened to his madness. We prayed briefly for him, tried to direct him towards a place that could house him for the night and proceeded with our rehearsal.

His name, he told us, is Eddie Monnie “Monet.”

Eddie left something for us. Tied to the door of our church like it was Luther’s 95 theses was a red nylon strap, part of a bicycle handle and two pieces of paper, folded in quarters and wrapped around the door handle secured with rubber bands. One side contained line after line of typed text full of symbols and arbitrary letters, surely amounting to some top secret coded CIA message or perhaps an extraterrestrial language. But the other side was a letter or poem handwritten by Eddie about someone he loved. Here is part of what he wrote:

The pain, the love, just won’t let go. I died everytime you said go. Get a job, go away, why won’t you just die. My heart left me. Every ounce of spirit drained like rain drops like a water fall, like the world crashed and burned. So cold.

You didn’t want me…I love another now since I left you. Now I’m so cold, so old, do I try, do I cry…

-dedicated to Betty. She sacrificed her life for me. She died February 7th, 2017 instead of me–for my sons and my daughters-my girls.

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Who is Betty and did she really die just two weeks earlier? Did he really have sons and daughters? I don’t know nor will I ever, I’m sure. But what I do know is that while Eddie’s mind may not function like yours or mine, his heart does. He feels pain, disappointment, frustration, loneliness and loss. He is aware of the loss of his youth, the loss of his loved one, the loss of what his life might have held.

He is human.

His body feels pain. Cold. Sickness. Hunger.

He is human.

Yet he also must feel the loss of his humanity in the eyes of society at large.

He was once a brand new baby for whom the world was full of promise. He was once a five-year-old boy, perhaps as energetic and joyful at one point as my own five year old son. He had hopes and dreams for his life. There were things that he was skilled at and gifted in. He experienced the awkwardness of middle school, the growing pains of adulthood. Love and loss.

At some point in his life he was probably in his right mind. Mental illness works like that. You may be a normally functioning adult until one day some trauma or simply enough time passing causes you to cross a threshold and the mental illness you were predisposed to finally surfaces. The mind morphs into something unrecognizable. Think Russel Crow in A Beautiful Mind.

There’s a line from a Gungor song that says, “When we see our brother, we’ll all be free.” We can see those around us but do we see them. Do we see people or do we only see their circumstances? Do we only see the bad choices they’ve made, their mistakes and their failings?

Let’s take this further. Do we only see their political affiliation, their religion, their race or their socio-economic standing? Or can we see their humanity? Can we see ourselves and our stories in them? Can we see the faces of our children our parents or our best friends in them?

I’m learning to be more and more comfortable with being uncomfortable in life. I’m confident that although God has plans to prosper us and give us a hope and a future, it’s not just so we can enjoy a long and comfortable life. To whom much has been given much is required. When we insist on surrounding ourselves with pads and bumpers and blinders to insulate ourselves from the world’s suffering we are closing the doors of God’s love. He pours his love into us so we can let it overflow onto the world around us.

And when we don’t feel like we have enough to give, we can let him fill us up again in order to pour out because he is an endless source of love. When we don’t feel we have enough strength to let empathy and compassion run their course in our hearts, we can lean on him. When we feel the discomfort of helplessness we can face it head on knowing that He is the source of all wisdom needed to transform the world into what he intends it to be.

And when we don’t know where to start we can start by allowing ourselves to see those around us. To see with His eyes each person put in our path as one that was created in His image.

To see humanity in every human we come into contact with.

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The Cost of Caring

Young woman sitting ion the street

“She felt everything too deeply, it was like the world was too much for her.”

-Joyce Maynard

I can’t tell you how many times I have felt like that. I’m a deeply empathetic person. I can’t help but put myself in your situation when I hear your story.

My education in International Studies filled my head with four years of statistics, research papers, and projects about wars, child soldiers, human trafficking, poverty and oppression. Perhaps it was this concentration on all the ills of the world that pushed me into a place of hiding from all the pain. It was all just too much. I didn’t watch the news. I just couldn’t to handle it. Hearing details of murders, rapes, genocide and war, babies without families and children being abused weighed heavily on my heart and I didn’t know what to do with it.

So I avoided it altogether. I read headlines of major world and national events so as to keep from being completely ignorant, but I would rarely click on actual articles to read through the details. Details painted too clear of a picture, adding to the weight and leaving me feeling either helpless or with a strange sort of survivor’s guilt. Why is the world so unfair and what could I possibly do? Why was I born here and blessed with so much while others lack even basic human necessities like food, clean water and a safe place to lay their head at night? It didn’t make sense.

So I ignored it.

Until recently when I actually clicked through to read the full story. I allowed myself to feel the pain. To let the weight of it press in heavy on my heart. Sadness, anger, and frustration filled up my soul to the point of overflowing, spilling out in words onto a page. Flawed and raw. But I was no longer a passive bystander. I had invested my heart in the issue. I was uncomfortable and agitated to action.

And then something else happened. I was unable to move on with life and forget the tragedy of yesterday. My investment of time, thoughts, and emotions continued. The dam I had built against the waters of empathy and compassion was breaking down and there was no stopping it anymore.

There is a cost to caring.

It costs us our comfort.

It costs emotional energy and time.

I think this is part of what I was afraid of. I knew that caring and allowing myself to feel would cost me some of my freedom. It’s much easier to focus on my world. To focus on my life and my stuff and what I want to do. Caring costs us our selfishness.

It’s easier to build up protective walls around ourselves. It’s easier to let our hearts grow callous. To limit our thoughts and conversations to simple politics. It’s easier to pick someone to be angry at or blame than it is to be broken with compassion and moved by love.

We read the headlines to inform our minds but rarely let it inform our hearts. We depersonalize stories into statistics and we give people labels instead of names. Democrat, republican, drug addict, prostitute, homeless, rich, stupid. Labels allow us to attach varying degrees of value, justifying our lack of caring. And society agrees with us.

Yet when was Jesus ever in agreement with society? Did he pick up the first stone to throw at the woman caught in adultery? Did he treat Zaccheus with contempt? Did he roll his eyes at the woman desperate for healing or recoil in disgust as the lepers drew close?

No.

Jesus wept.

He was moved with compassion to action.

He consistently imparted worth to those whom society had cast aside. He embraced those even the church had rejected. He sought out those whom the rest of the world deemed unworthy of love and dignity. Each and EVERY life held value in the eyes of our Savior.

We’re called to mourn with those who mourn. We’re called to enter in to the pain of another person. This isn’t an act of our intellect, but of our hearts. We have to allow ourselves to feel. Not a passive sympathy, but an active empathy. Compassion that moves us.

We are dealers of hope to a world desperately in need of a new perspective.  We are light and life to those living in darkness. We can be a voice for those who do not have one in the world.

We may not have all the answers but we have access to the one who does.

Our love may run dry and our compassion be limited, but his is limitless.

The weight of the world may be too much for us to bear, but he has already overcome the world. And he’s looking for partners who will open their hearts and let him fill up whatever they’re  lacking so humanity can be healed, restored and reconciled.

A Franciscan Benediction

May God bless us with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that we may live from deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of God’s creations
So that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless us with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,
So that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with just enough foolishness
To believe that we can make a difference in the world,
So that we can do what others claim cannot be done:
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and all our neighbors who are poor.

Amen.