A rejected community

When I walk to the Shelter, I normally pass a number of men and women I personally know, who struggle with alcoholism and drug abuse. Most of them, being homeless or precariously housed, have isolated themselves from almost all social services and society. Because of their addictions, lack of impulse control and lapse in hygiene, they have become America’s ultimate rejects. This country’s poor of the poor! Sadly their lifestyle results in homeless shelters constantly having to bar them due to their extravagant behavior, yet ironically, a strong little community has formed.

This community of ex-offenders, drunks, prostitutes, crack heads and the mentally ill may seem ugly, but in reality, they have created a network of support and security. They eat, drink, fight, play and pray together. Amongst the chaos that constantly lingers, they have a system that functions to uphold one another, to cry for mercy and protect the weak. Whereas, they often indulge in illegal activities and enable each other’s addictions, their ultimate goal is to lift each other from their poverty! They are caught in a seemingly endless cycle that echoes their despair, yet in desperation and when opportunities arise they join forces to push their friend from that pit.

I have discovered that my calling is to infiltrate that community and offer answers and hope. They have welcomed me into their clique and I have found myself loving these men and women greatly. I mourn when they mourn, laugh when they laugh, play when they play and pray when called to pray, Yet, I also try to help them escape the vicious cycle of addiction, break the bonds of incarceration and be a peacemaker in their times aggravation and threats. I thank God for the loving relationship that has formed between us.

While they may welcome me with open arms, fist pumps and smiles; their beers and bottles of gin are placed in pockets, behind their legs and in other hiding places. Conversations also silence and their language changes. They do this out of respect and to keep certain activities in the dark! I have seen and heard the call of “here comes Jeremy” as I wander around the corner, momentarily any drinking ceases. Naturally, days also come when the intoxication peaks and tempers flare, the cops come and arrests are made as they struggle to keep hidden their obvious misdemeanors. God has gifted me with this sad, yet beautiful, position!

On Labor Day, I walked down the street to the cry, “Jeremy, look we’re all drinking today, ya want one?” and they all held up cans of sprite and laughed. Joking continued as they spoke of changing their addictions from alcohol to sugar! They show me four 12 packs of various sodas. After a few hours of work, I start wandering home and a usual suspect, Francis, approaches me snuggling a Natural Ice. We are discussing some of life’s concerns with Bernard, when 2 young men, looking out of place, approach us and mumbled a request. Francis and Bernard immediately act shocked claiming “we know nothing about that.” The young men slowly walk away, and Bernard tells me they wanted to buy a nickel bag of weed.

Jerome sits on a stoop daily. He continually drinks his woes away. Almost 60, he has never learnt to read and write. He has never been assessed and does not receive any income. His plight, like many serially inebriated homeless folk, is the fact that he has been ignored, despised and rejected, left to live in the literal gutter.

And who tries to pick him up, offer a glimmer of hope and give him a sense of fellowship? It is not the government and not even the Church. It was and remains to be, this community of rejects who are barely surviving. They intercede for him, begging for us to help give him shelter and meet his needs. And together, we fight to break the bondage that has gripped Jerome since his teenage years.

On a practical level, we have got his social security card, birth certificate from Alabama, school records and, most recently, his State ID. One of the loitering crew escorted him downtown to help him get his identification, and they all proudly celebrated this accomplishment and made fun of his photo, with his unkempt hair that made him look like Don King. We have also helped him set up appointments for housing and his medical needs. There has also been a concerted effort to help him apply for SSI online. It is a long and tiresome procedure! Often I need to find and see Jerome and all I need to do is send out a word. The community will hunt him down, and he’ll walk into my office faster than if I’d sent an e-mail.

It is a hard life for these folks, as their community is riddled with disease and death. This is not a case of drunkards needing to pull themselves up by their boot straps. This a group of people enslaved in bondage so strong and so deep, there does not seem to be answers. It is a corporate effort of people being willing to climb down into their world and live! A marvelous thing is witnessed by entering their world; hope, progress and miracles happen!

Amongst the stench of urine, sweat, alcohol and cigarette smoke, one often catches a whiff of a sweet smelling perfume. That perfume ignites a reminder of how Jesus sits on crate enjoying the company of America’s “least of these”. It reminds me of how their little community often shames Christian communities, and how we can and could learn from their examples of faith, generosity and love. It reminds me of the faithful widow generously giving her all; a mere mite. It reminds me that Jesus came to save sinners in need of a physician. That sweet smell reminds me of Jesus giving props to the sinner who prayed that simple prayer sobbing, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

I need to be reminded that within the Kingdom of Heaven, God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong and “God chose the lowly things of the world, and the things that are despised, and the things that are not, that he might bring to nothing the things that are.” Jesus upended the glory of money, strength and power, by simply proclaiming that within His Kingdom “the first shall be last, and the last, first!”
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