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.
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.