I can’t remember his name now, it was one of those not very unusual names, Tom, or Ron or Mike, but the man holding the “Will work for Food” sign on the side of the road has a name.
He was in our drug and alcohol program – but only for a few weeks. I can’t remember his name, but I recall parts of his story. He had several lingering, and eventually fatal diseases; Hepatitis C among many others. Probably HIV/AIDS as well.
He’s homeless now, and I see him and two or three companions at the same intersection occasionally as my wife and I do our weekend errands. I wouldn’t call his companions friends – and I’m sure he wouldn’t either, but at least he’s not alone under a bridge – or wherever he stays.
Somehow, when I don’t know these people, when I can treat them like any other abandoned object alongside the road, like a box or a broken shopping cart, I can just keep going and not think about them. But if I know their name, his name…there’s something there, some kind of ethereal linkage. I may keep driving, but his name, his story, sticks to me like some unwelcome gum on my shoe.
At a basic level, one of the first things we do when we have a child, or even a pet, is to give it a name. It makes it ours – one of us.
A name gives us a core for our memories .
I am a citizen of a different country when my memories include these homeless stragglers. In an odd way, they are of my world. And even worse, or perhaps in God’s eyes, even better, I am of their world.
I’d rather blandly do my errands and drive by.
I don’t want to be a citizen of that world. Or perhaps, more precisely, I don’t want to be a citizen of a world that allows its people to be so adrift.
Who, or what, have we become when we roll up our windows, lock our doors, shift our gaze and add another layer of indifference over hearts?
And for those of us who call ourselves Christians, suddenly Jesus’ words seem colder and more personal, no longer a theological abstraction: ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Matthew 25:45 (New International Version)
I don’t want to face these people. But I also don’t want to face Jesus in the barren light of Matthew 25.
And yet, somehow, at least if we take Jesus seriously, these scruffy, dirty people; many with major mental problems, are, in abstruse yet practical way, in the economy of Matthew 25, central to our salvation in the eyes of God.
Yes, that is it. They are there for us. We are not here for them.
Or if we are, it is only in the most superficial way. We may feed them for a moment. Or pass them by.
Their stake is eternal. Jesus says that our redemption rests on moments like this. I can’t say that I like this equation. Many of the sayings of Jesus are fairly open to interpretation, but where is ambiguity when I really want it? Certainly not in Matthew 25.
Perhaps this is the nature of every divine encounter: Jesus isn’t playing games. And I just want to be left alone.
The truly frightening part is, God just might give me what I want. He just might let me be alone, truly, fully, eternally alone. Separation from God is a working definition of Hell. Some of us have been there, if only for a few moments, or have seen the walking disconnection of mind, body and soul in the stilted movements and blank eyes. There are few things more scary than a moving, vacant human being.
His name leaves a shadow across my memory. Yet there is only a shadow because of the light behind him.
On a human (or perhaps inhuman) level, we forget, or don’t want to acknowledge, that each of these people, the ones holding the signs, the homeless, these marginal people, they all have names, histories and stories.
Each one of them is a human barometer telling us that something is deeply wrong here: with our legal system, our housing programs, our mental health care system.
There is something wrong with our priorities, our economy, us.
There is something deeply wrong with us when people stand in the cold and rain, in public with their personal dislocation and shame.
It is too painful, too humiliating, to dehumanizing. And, truth be told, for most of us, if we lost two or three paychecks, it could be us out there.
And we would want those people in their warm and safe cars, those people going about their business, doing errands and seeing friends, we too used to have cars, friends and errands.
We too, used to have – no, still have, names.
Morf Morford considers himself a free-range Christian who is convinced that God expects far more of us than we can ever imagine, but somehow thinks God knows more than we do. To pay his bills, he’s been a teacher for adults (including those in his local county jail) in a variety of setting including Tribal colleges, vocational schools and at the university level in the People’s Republic of China. Within an academic context, he also writes an irreverent ESL blog and for the Burnside Writers Collective. As he’s getting older, he finds himself less tolerant of pettiness and dairy products.