Stanley is a dirty old man, and by that I don’t just mean he talks about younger women in inappropriate ways. He smells bad, too. Really bad. On the other hand, Stanley is about as gentle a fellow as you are likely to meet here in Walnut Hills, which is why the rest of us put up with his stink, even at the dinner table. He’s our friend, after all.
After dinner the other night, we held our annual show-and-tell talent show, which is kind of a homey cross between American Idol and The Jerry Springer Show. Just after one of our teenagers proudly modeled her pregnant belly (her talents, unfortunately, do not include good judgment), I was getting ready for “Cincinnati’s loudest burp” when Karen tapped me on the shoulder. “Della says Stanley has bedbugs all over his jacket, ” she whispered urgently. “What do we do now?”
I quietly moved next to Della, who sadly shook her head. Sure enough, Stanley ’s back was literally crawling with bedbugs. How did I know they were bedbugs, you ask? Around here we learn to spot our bedbugs the way an endangered horror movie hero learns to spot her zombies. Della knew too. “You gotta get him out of here, or my family’s leaving, ” she told me. “I love y’all, Bart, but we can’t be getting no bedbugs.” And just that quickly, everything changed between Stanley and the rest of us.
I called him outside, but there was no way to avoid embarrassing him. He didn’t argue or minimize the problem. He just shook his head and told me he didn’t know what to do. I shook my head too. Three weeks later, I still don’t know what to do.
If all this seems overly dramatic, then you must be unaware that bedbugs, which were largely wiped out in this country by DDT in the 1950s, are in the midst of a major resurgence, most especially among the poor people in inner-city neighborhoods who are least equipped to fight them. It only takes one hitching a ride on your clothes to infest your house, and after that they are incredibly difficult to get rid of, even with the help of an exterminator, and even if you can afford to throw away your bed and most of your furniture. They feed on your blood every three nights, but you can’t just leave and starve them out, because they can survive without feeding for more than a year.
Spiritually speaking, bedbugs are a kind of modern-day leprosy. Della and her family aren’t the only ones afraid to touch Stanley these days; all of us keep our distance. Until we can find a way to shower and dress him in clean clothes each week, we don’t even let him come to dinner anymore. He’s a gentle old crackhead who needs our love, but we shun him.
We’re still not safe, of course. Every day we hug people who might be carriers, or invite their kids into our homes, or go to visit theirs. A few months ago, when Marty and I had a false alarm in our house, our whole ministry here flashed before our eyes. Bullets in the backyard we can handle, I think. Bedbugs … I don’t know. How can you love anybody if you can’t sleep anymore?
Then again, how well can you sleep when you know your old friend Stanley is just a few blocks away, filthy and bug-bitten and alone? Not so well, it turns out, when you think about it.
I used to judge all those Bible people who shunned the lepers to protect themselves and their families. I thought I was different because I was willing to spend my life in a ghetto. Now I know better … and wish I had some DDT.
Bart Campolo is a veteran urban minister and activist who speaks and writes about grace, faith, loving relationships and social justice. Bart is the leader of The Walnut Hills Fellowship, a local ministry in inner city Cincinnati.
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