My Grumpy Old Friend: May You Rest In Peace.
There are times when people step into our lives and present ongoing dilemmas. These people are never easy. These people become our constant headaches, heartaches and bellyaches. These people are there, leaving us scratching our heads at the crossroads, asking us to put our faith into action. At this intersection, we are required to make some radical choices; do we neglect or embrace, do we persevere with them or toss them aside, do we them kick to the curb or allow ongoing tension to constantly resonate? The one big question that sums it all up is; do we choose to ignore this person or do we love them with the radical revolutionary love presented in the gospels; the Love Jesus proclaimed and commanded His followers to imitate?
Unfortunately and respectfully, my buddy Walter was one of those guys. He lived the majority of his life isolated and rejected by all; well almost all! He lived the vast majority of his final 30 years, homeless; living in parks, nursing homes and our shelter!
This is not written to point blame at others, who constantly rejected and neglected him, because there are a couple simple facts about Walter that we need to know; he ignited his own rejection by telling people to "get lost", along with other colorful displays of hostile language. He was not an easy dude to chill with, in fact, he could be downright mean! His aggressive attitude and demeanor caused most people to flee far away. His isolation was simply a response to his obvious rejection of all who surrounded him. He did not like other people, our mere presence aggravated him and anyone who got within a few feet of Walter got harsh doses of his aggressive negativity.
Even though we don't know much, we discovered little snippets of this man's earlier life; he'd been married a few times and had a bunch of children, but he was now alone! They had all vanished; nowhere to be seen or found: it was just him! Completely and utterly alone! Homeless in Uptown, Chicago!
I first met Walter about 10 or 11 years ago when homeless men used to sleep in our cafeteria. He was in his late 60s and would only come during the colder months. I don't recall much, except his complaining about noise and his occasional aggressive arguments with the other residents, who referred to him as the "grumpy old man". When winter vanished, so did Walter. When that particular shelter program closed in late '04, he disappeared. Occasionally I'd see him hobbling along Arygle or another Uptown Street and we'd exchange somewhat pleasant greetings and I'd listen to him gripe about someone or something. We'd part ways, not expecting to see each other again.
A few years later, (late '08), I received a surprising phone call from a nurse, asking me if we could take Walter into our shelter. I couldn't help at that moment, because I was about to fly to New Zealand for a 3 month trip to visit family, so I suggested other places, including nursing homes! She made it very clear that this stubborn old man only wanted to be housed where I was; absolutely no where else! He even refused come to CCO, because I wasn't going to be there. I was shocked! I knew Walter, but I didn't have a relationship with the guy. In fact, it'd been almost 5 years since he'd slept on our cafeteria floor, and I'd only seen him 2 or 3 times since. I was completely shocked by this unusual compliment and the mere fact I'd had a positive impact on this man. But, I couldn't do anything, so I left him in the very capable hands of his nurse, a lady he admired and trusted.
I forgot about Walter as I traveled "down under", only to return in early 2009, to find him living at CCO. That winter's bitter cold came and he had to get inside, so he reluctantly ended up staying at Epworth Gym. While we were vacating in beautiful Aotearoa, Cornerstone was blessed with the opportunity to take over the management of this men's shelter. So here he was, in my life once again. A permanent fixture! Yet, this time, Walter was standing before me as a much more fragile old man. Even though his mind was still very active and alert; his lungs, heart and legs were all in rapid decline! Even though his health was deteriorating, Walter was still angry and exceedingly grumpy. Even though his health meant that he needed help from other people, he would only do things his own way; he had become the man everyone would try and avoid at all costs. But ironically, he needed people!
At this point, I won't bore people with all the details of his stay with us, but suffice to say, he never stopped causing ongoing sagas and continued dilemmas. Whereas, he may have looked like a fragile old man in his 70's, sitting in an indented chair, reading his newspapers and National Geographic magazines, the complaints about him were endless and justified. Whereas, he didn't smoke, drink alcohol, do drugs, gang-bang or break curfew, he kept the tension constant. Whereas, he "could of" and "should of" been kicked out for numerous reasons, all logic justified it, but "kingdom love" caused us to persevere and constantly work as peacemakers. Barring Walter from our shelter would result in two things; the rapid suffering and death of this man. He was now too old and too sick to survive "out there" on the streets, and refused to be "imprisoned" in a Nursing Home, get his own apartment or stay at another homeless shelter. He was our permanent fixture!
Due to us taking over Epworth, and with me being in New Zealand when this happened, Sandy was now a huge part of Walter's life, and he began to trust her also. Even though we weren't exempt from his irrational and verbally violent outbursts, we had become his family, the only two people in the world he seemed to give "two hoots" about.
We had to come up with solutions, because we didn't want to see our old buddy attacked by some young angry male or female because of his hostile attitude. There were countless times we played the peace-maker role, protecting him from clenched fists. So as one act of conflict resolution, we ended up placing him in his own exclusive little spot, where he could lock himself away from the masses.
Walter's health and mobility was rapidly deteriorating, and because of this, he had no choice but to rely on the help of others. He needed others to go to the store to get him food and drink, he needed others to get his newspapers, he needed others to take him to doctor appointments and he needed others to help him get his monthly check. Through all this, he despised the fact that he now had to rely on others. Whereas, running to the store took a matter of minutes, taking Walter to his doctors appointments was long, difficult and very tedious. Sandy was the saint who demonstrated countless displays of "kingdom love" by tirelessly driving him to numerous doctor's appointments all over the city, often putting up with an entourage of verbal diarrhea. I would drive him on the days Sandy couldn't, and I know we'd both implore him to make sure he was "right" with God; sometimes he'd give a "bah humbug" response and other times he'd seemed a little more positive.
One day as I drove him around, we were chatting about his vast knowledge of history, New Zealand and other facts he'd learned from his reading, he blurted out in a calm tone, "you know Jeremy, you're a real friend!" This simple comment made me smile. It may not seem much, but it meant SO much. Maybe, just maybe, all our efforts, that seemed fruitless and arbitrary had produced a little fruit. Maybe, just maybe, he had heard the words of Sandy, myself and others who'd asked him to "right" himself with his Creator, and maybe, just maybe, in the quietness of his solitary room, he surrendered himself in humble prayers to the One who died for him.
Not too long after Walter spoke these encouraging words to me, some of us realized we hadn't seen him doing his infrequent routine. His would struggle out of his indented and molded chair, huff and puff to his locked door, lean against the door frame and holler at someone he trusted to go buy him a Sun-Times and a couple snacks from the Corner-Store. After knocking on his door and being met with silence, we unlocked it and found him sitting on his chair; dead! We respectfully covered him with a blanket and waited for the authorities come and pick him up. His heart and lungs which had caused him stress for years, and then graduated to cause him immense anxiety for his final months, finally surrendered their life-giving power. A few of us set about cleaning and sanitizing the room he had been occupying; it is not the time or place to elaborate on how difficult and disgusting this task was, as it was one of the worst jobs I've ever endured, but through it all we did our best to preserve his dignity. It also served as a time where we all grieved over this man who had occupied our lives for years. Ironically, I believe he'd passed away how he wanted; sitting in the chair that molded into him and had given him relative comfort, reading his newspaper and being alone.
There's a couple reasons I've spent my time remembering my grumpy old friend; it's not to point out his faults or how ugly he could be, but to remember how Walter needed people, and in a strange way, we needed him too. Everybody needs other people, even the one's who wanna be alone. I believe Walter died where he wanted to be, ironically in a homeless shelter! He didn't want to die in a hospital or Nursing Home, he wanted to be surrounded by people who tolerated him and cared about him. He found that at CCO, and in his strange way, he tolerated and cared about us also.
I gotta be honest, I'm someone who finds good in all the homeless folk I work with, even the most despised and rejected; I see beauty in the ashes, I see Jesus in them, but it was often hard with Walter. He had a unique way of provoking anger, he could easily cuss us out when we were being nothing but kind and helpful, but there were moments, wonderful moments, when a light would shine and I'd meet and find a kind, intelligent and thought provoking man; like the time we drove around Uptown and he told me that I was a real friend.
.... and yes, we were friends, real friends!
Walter challenged my faith, my compassion and my love. I think he challenged us all. Even though I made many mistakes and often tried to dodge him, his mere presence reminded me that love, the real revolutionary kingdom love Jesus spoke of, is never easy, but always needed. I often wanted to run and hide, but I knew the gospel said "compassionately embrace this old man, he has no one else". Walter needed our love, and we were privileged enough to be there for him and with him, to the day of his death. Walter is a picture of loneliness, rejection and isolation, just like many of the folk Jesus met in his wanderings. Jesus went to the tombs where Legion was chained, he stopped to talk to Bartimaeus and he restored dignity to the bleeding woman who touched the fringe of his cloak. He could of ignored them all, he could have easily passed on by, but he didn't.
There are many times I haven't stopped. There are many times I've ignored. There are many times I've walked on by, but Walter's story reminds me just how important it is to pause, persevere and love! He also reminds me of what I witness in Huia, a little beach town we frequent in New Zealand; this spot has millions of hard, jagged, rough rocks laid out in the sand. You have to wear shoes, because these rocks can slice open a naked foot with relative ease, but if you take the effort and turn one over, you're captured by all the beauty and life that scurries underneath. Through taking the time, and exerting a little effort, beauty and life was discovered.
It was found in Walter also.
I don't know what Walter prayed in the quietness of his isolated room, I don't know where he stood before the Throne, I don't even know if he prayed, but my hope and prayer, (along with Sandy and many others), is that I'll see Walter again, standing in resurrected glory, with a new body and a fresh attitude. My hope and prayer is that I'll be able to embrace and hug my grumpy old friend, knowing all is well with his soul.
Walter; my grumpy old friend; may you rest in peace! May I see you again and may God bless you.