taking the words of Jesus seriously

Feet stuffed into women’s pumps and skirt obligingly hoisted to reveal a mottled backside, Leslie Cochran presided over Austin’s parade of oddballs for over fifteen years, their undisputed Queen.

Leslie was a transvestite, a writer, and an activist, who spent his days (and nights) in Austin’s downtown area. Leslie was an indelible part of the landscape. When we lost him last week, this was big local news but it also merited national attention—the New York Times ran an article on Leslie describing him as a local favorite in a city that embraces its own eccentricity.

An article in the Austin American Statesman called on the city to honor Leslie by putting an end to homelessness, which seems natural enough until you consider that Leslie wasn’t interested in ending homelessness. He didn’t much like homeless people, for one thing. And when it came to his own life, it’s hard to imagine him mowing his lawn out in the suburbs, holding a straight job, and paying his mortgage on time. It’s not clear that Leslie ever wanted to be other than he was.

An equal case could be made for championing the issues that really were important to Leslie. I never heard him talk about ending homelessness but he had plenty to say about Christians, most of it negative. He used to tell a story about being ushered out of a church building by the police. He ducked inside to find shelter and the church people promptly called the police. He wasn’t welcome there because of his clothing, his status as a homeless man, his notoriety. As they ushered him out, he called over his shoulder, “You’re showing Jesus the door.”

He was right.

Jesus calls us to welcome him by welcoming the poor. Very few of us actually do it. Not long after I first heard this story, a homeless man showed up at our church here in Austin. The vestry took care of it quickly and quietly. He was escorted out more or less the way we’d deal with an intruding rodent. It happened just like Leslie said and we showed Jesus the door.

Welcoming the poor, the smelly, and the weird isn’t easy. We’d all much rather spend time with people like us. And I have no doubt Leslie was making a nuisance of himself the day he was asked to leave that church. A friend of Leslie’s put it to me this way: You want to invite Leslie home with you but the next thing you know, he won’t leave, and he’s smoking in your living room after you told him to put out the cigarette. So you don’t and it’s understandable.

But then Jesus never did ask us to do the logical thing and form social organizations for like-minded folks.

I’m not saying we need to give more to charity. Leslie wasn’t alone among homeless men and women in feeling demeaned by Christians, maybe especially when they’re engaged in helping the poor. There’s a homeless joke that goes like this: A man arrives at the pearly gates and meets St. Peter. Peter wants to know who he was in life. He was a Salvation Army captain. Great, exclaims Peter. Come right in! Peter leads the man to a room full of rickety bunks, mattresses an inch thick, hands him a paper-thin blanket and tells him to sleep well and be out by 5 AM.

The joke is funny because it’s holds up a mirror for our failings. It isn’t that we’ve failed to give enough. That may be the case. But underneath that, there’s a deep sense in which even our acts of charity have served to dehumanize rather than redeem.

What’s missing is our sense of the homeless as human beings with stories and names. That, I’d argue, is what’s missing from too much of our ministry with “the poor”, “the lost”, and “the homeless.” We approach them as a faceless need, a problem to solve, or a project that needs our attention. They show up in our churches and our lives, we can’t get past our sense that they don’t belong.

Leslie’s voice calls us to repent of this sin. He defied us all to forget him, to ignore him, to let him fade into the crowd. We couldn’t forget him we tried—you just don’t forget an old man in a zebra print skirt. Once he had our attention, he told us the truth. I can’t think of a better way to honor him than to share his words.

Let the time come when we no longer usher God out of our midst by showing the wayward, the homeless, and the weird the door. Let it come quickly and in the meantime, may God forgive us.

Annie Bullock lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and three children. She is a Humanities Instructor at Regents School of Austin and the author of Real Austin: The Homeless and the Image of God.

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