If I Were Homeless…
I do this thing where I search for places to sleep if I were homeless. My children are less disturbed than when I initially began sharing “If I were homeless…” plots. Last week I ran under an overpass and caught myself inspecting its potential for shelter from the rain and cold.
This preoccupation with my own imagined homelessness began when I was driving a minor road in a shopping area of town. The road was bordered by a dense swath of trees, thick with foliage and brush. I peered in, hoping to be treated to some trinket of nature. A woodpecker. A lone wildflower. A cautious rabbit.
Instead I saw a tent.
My mind clothes-pinned the image to my consciousness. Who lives there? Where did he get the tent? Why is he homeless? But, more than anything, I was moved by his choice of location. These were woods in the heart of our commercial district, hemmed in by the interstate. Maybe he thought the site insured people nearby and was too urban for animals of a ferocious bent. That would have been my line of thought too. Something about that fabrication left me feeling connected to the unseen inhabitant of that khaki canvas.
Now I sometimes imagine what I would look like a month unshowered. I see dirt caked under my nails and my long, thick hair heavy with oil. I run my tongue across my teeth, hairy with a warm film of bacteria, coated by the thick saliva of dehydration. I take the rancid stench of a hard run and multiply it by thirty and apply it to me and my brownish clothes baggy with constant wear.
And I imagine what that would do to me.
Interestingly, I am always homeless alone. My imagination cannot allow homeless children…
I sit across from a female inmate, and her story is heavy with us. Even though I don’t know it. I don’t ask. We are both aware of its effect, even if the specifics remain unnamed.
To be honest, I don’t ask because I am afraid that knowing will break me.
So we live in that hour. That present. Where all I know to do is smile and hug and love and encourage and share Truth and hope and most of all Jesus. And many of them smile and hug and love and encourage back which makes it amazing grace.
Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be born to a young mama addicted to heroin.
Or to have her boyfriend amuse himself by holding lit cigarettes to my tender skin.
To have no memory of ever being pure.
To awaken to gunshots.
To grow up with a hollowed out soul.
And I imagine what that would do to me.
“Why NOT me?”
I did nothing to deserve the advantage of my birth. Of my circumstances.
Sometimes I think we congratulate ourselves on living a wholesome middle-class life. But, really, to what credit is that to us?
Bless us, we’ll call having basic cable a deprivation and consignment shopping a brush with humility.
I’m not trying to bang the guilt drum; I’m really not. And if I were, I’d be the greatest offender.
But there is something I’m after.
- Can we all acknowledge that a high school diploma in one child’s life, given his circumstances, may be a greater achievement than three college degrees earned by a child of affluence?
- Can we grasp that the child whose only meals happen at school may not legitimately care about the order of operations in math class?
- Can we understand that children who grow up with addict parents may not exhibit the same behavior we deem acceptable?
We are not all born into equal circumstances.
We don’t all have the same chance for success.
But the playing field of grace should be level, Church. Disparity has no place here.
We know little of fighting for a future.
But the pathway of judgment and complacency is well-worn.
We want our homeless people clean and happy, educated and with nice manners. We want children without functioning parents to know appropriate behavior and how to make responsible choices. We want people who live in abject poverty to see the value of working a minimum wage job instead of turning a quick trick or sale. Honesty doesn’t always feed a growling stomach or put shoes on a little boy’s feet.
If we can’t give anything, we can give grace.
I am not making excuses. I think crimes should be punished. I don’t have the answers. But I believe God is clear about His heart here, and it involves a lot of love and a lot of compassion and a lot of help. And it begins when we unzip the insulation of privilege around our own hearts…
For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’ – Matthew 25:35-40
…and dispense a lot of grace.
A dogged, tenacious grace.[Images: Karim Corban, Wayne S. Grazio, Thomas Hawk]