Wretched to the World; Blessed by the King!
Certain people have unknowingly and unexpectedly inspired me!
The deaths of these photographed friends actually sparked a flame, causing me to want to throw gasoline on it; making the fire ferocious and last forever!
Nick, George, Walter, Dave, Don and Walter aren't heroes, saints or even role-models; actually, to be honest, these men were often extremely successful in bugging, irritating and causing continual drama and conflict in my life.
Now to reveal another nugget of truth; in different ways, these men were all horribly rejected, hated and despised by most people who passed them on the street. These men aren't pretty, they were all homeless and undeniably qualified among America's "least of these". I would also say that they rank incredibly high on Chicago's "undeserving poor" list. These are fellas that the "so called" elite in Uptown want to stomp on and boot out of the neighborhood; they look dreadfully unsightly, uninviting and unforgiven. These are the very ones, nobody wants to know or see, because when these poor men are seen, they are the very ones that other people call for them to be relocated, imprisoned and institutionalized.
Yet, despite all this rejection and opposition; stubbornly they remained, subtly influencing my inner revolutionary and reactionary sides, sparking a tiny flame that flickers inside me....
What else can I say about these men? What else can I say about these people that the world loves to label as "wretched"? Without even a hint of sarcasm, these same "wretched" men mysteriously and remarkably inspired me. These same "wretched" men became my friends and I loved them. These same "wretched" men, who just fought to survive and live day-by-day, pulled viciously at my heart strings, causing me to take notice!
What is of extreme importance here is these "wretched" men sparked within me a deep questioning about the meaning and reality of LOVE. Obviously, I love and adore my wife Beth. Obviously, I love our two children, Cyrus and Muriwai, and on top of that, it's easy to love my mum, dad and the rest of my whanau and friends. Whereas some days can be rougher than others, arguments occur and we get on each others nerves, yet this love never-ever disappears; this particular type of love is a two-way relationship of loving, giving and helping one another through both the good and bad.
Yet, my relationships with these so-called "wretched" men is very different. They, and many others, have caused me to ask, "what does Love; the Revolutionary Love of the Bible, the Kingdom Love of Jesus, really mean? and how do I, being nothing but wretched man myself, live out and display this Love to the 'least of these', right here in Uptown, Chicago?"
Below are 6 photos of 6 different men who had all tragic tales to tell and have all tragically passed away. Each man has a vastly different story and they have all touched my life in vastly different ways. (I have written about all of them previously throughout this blog). I may have been closer to other people, but each of these men symbolizes something at an important junction in my life, causing me to sit up and question my mission, direction and Love as a follower of Jesus...
NICK passed away under a tree in late 2004, right here in Uptown. Nick was homeless in Chicago, he was without family or income, and on top of that, he was extremely sick with multiple conditions, struggled with some mentally illnesses and was completely and utterly illiterate. As you can imagine, with all those forces rallying against him, his life was very difficult. I believe we'd become a shining beacon in his life; we'd become his long-lost family and he was feeling loved. Along with another Uptown agency, things were starting to change for Nick and he was getting some of the help he needed. We worked together, making sure he avoided certain foods that could kill him and we were guiding him towards a healthier lifestyle. What was most significant was that we were able to witness a man who was starting to find a little more comfort in his very uncomfortable life.
In the light of all this positivity, Nick's world was suddenly rocked by some bad news: we had to close down the shelter he was staying in. The government agency came in with a bunch of promises and systematically broke them all, and Nick, being the weakest and most vulnerable, suffered the most. Being mentally ill, family-less and illiterate, he couldn't comprehend what was going on, so he angrily and loudly questioned the agency's director, who arrogantly swore at him and told him that he wouldn't be helped at all. Scott and I were horrified by his callous lack of compassion and we begged the Commissioner to have mercy, but he brushed us off like we were a couple of annoying fleas. Nick disappeared into the cold night, and he died a month later under a tree in Uptown.
Nick spurred in me a desire to fight harder for the "least of these", Nick spurred in me a desire to fight against the lies and brutality of governing bodies, especially when they lack any compassion for the poor and marginalized. Nick's death inspired me to write this blog and never let his wonderful name die. I keep a picture of Nick in my office, and here's a link to a more detailed post of what I knew about my poor homeless friend: N I C K: may you rest in peace
David and I chatted on a deeper level a few times and he told me some of the horrific things he went through while he served in North Africa. He also told me, since returning home, his life never got any easier; he'd sadly been a victim of hate crimes and felt rejected by the country he chose to serve. David's misery isn't unique, there are far too many homeless veterans living in shelters, outside, riding the trains and squatting in abandoned buildings. The problem escalates, because Dave is just one of a ton of veterans who are trying to survive and navigate through a very complicated system, tightly wrapped with miles of red trap. This problem isn't unique to the Obama Administration, and from my humble viewpoint, I would say opportunities have actually improved for homeless veterans in last 4 years, as we've seen our friends find permanent housing at more rapid pace. There is still a long way to go and I tried to reveal this struggle in a piece I wrote in 2011 called Seven Weary Veterans
Even though David continued to sleep outside, he found a home, food, family and love at Cornerstone. We tried to cut through all the red tape to get him housed and the help he needed. It was difficult, but it was working, he was wandering down down the right road and inching closer and closer to getting permanently housed. BUT then tragedy happened, David mysteriously drowned in Lake Michigan last winter. Did he slip and fall? Did he commit suicide? Or did some ruthless thugs decide to commit another hate crime on a homeless man by tossing him into the freezing water (he had been victim to this before)? God is only one who really knows.
David; rest in peace my friend, you are missed. You spurred in me a desire to put aside my political and ethical beliefs about weapons and war. You spurred in me a desire to fight for homeless veterans. You spurred in me a desire to provide homeless vets with the home, food and family they are often sadly lacking. You showed me that homeless veterans are often ranked among this country's "least of these" and it's theologically and ethically correct to shower you with all the Revolutionary Love I can.
WALTER'S sudden and awful death rocked our Cornerstone family like no other death we experienced last year. Here was a young man, full of dreams and potential, with a baby on the way, brutally murdered before our eyes. He was shot numerous times in the middle of the day, at point blank range, just around the corner from CCO. Sadly, to this day, his blood still stains the sidewalk in front of Jimmy Johns. Here are a few links to the drama, mourning and love that reverberated through our little community: The Brutality Of The Gun!, A Never-Ending Roller Coaster, Lasting Connections and The Lingering Burden!
Walter; like your memorial poster said, Rest in Paradise my friend. The severity and shock of your death rallied in me a deeper desire to fight for peace and against the common desire to revolve conflicts with violence and guns. Your death also inspired within me the need to take a greater role in holding memorial services and offering chances for their friends and the homeless population to really grieve. Unfortunately, far too many homeless people fade into the dark without even an ounce of remembrance; and this grieves me greatly! Forgotten in life and forgotten in death! The tears and bitterness that surrounded your bloodstained lifeless body caused me to react, and our friends found a little closure in the services and events we were able to conduct.
The man in this photo was also blessed with the name WALTER. Yet, this Walter was very different to the other Walter; I would say they were almost exact opposites. This observation goes far beyond the obvious differences in their ages and the color of their skin.Whereas the younger Walter was popular and surrounded by many friends; the elder Walter symbolized the "grumpy old hermit" who despised anyone and everyone who tried to embrace him. He was not an easy person to befriend and help, as there was always a high likelihood that we'd get cussed out and called names. To read more about my relationship with Walter, I wrote this brief memorial: My Grumpy Old Friend: May You Rest In Peace!
Walter; You taught me the importance of perseverance and love. As you were dying, you weren't easy to befriend, but you needed us, and in a strange way, we needed you! Even though you pushed us away, you reluctantly clung to us. Even though you'd lock yourself away, you needed other people, and we became those people. I'll never forget that simple sentence you said as I drove you around one day, "Jeremy, you are a real friend!" Those words touched me deeply. You made me realize that even the most bitter and isolated of human beings still need the love, help and support of other human beings. We NEED one another! Though men like you are viewed as wretched to the world, you still need the sacred embrace of community and the Eternal King, and we, as His followers, need to be those instruments. Rest in peace my grumpy old friend; may I see you again and may God bless you!
Now I have the honor and privilege of introducing to you my friend DONALD (aka Papa G). I first met Papa G through some of his homeless buddies who didn't know his real name. Some young thugs had decided it would be funny to set his blankets on fire as he was sleeping behind the local Aldis, so his buddies begged me to take him in and away from harm's way. I took him into the shelter, and from that day, and because of his love-affair with gin and Natural Ice, Papa G always presented me with ongoing dilemmas and continual sagas. Standing before me was a sweet fragile old man, who couldn't read or write, but then alcohol would quickly turn him in a hostile gangsta who thought he had the strength to threaten and defeat the biggest and strongest. After a few years of putting out fires, finding him a place to lay his homeless head, diligently trying to get him housed and helping him wander through a world full of words and technology, Donald mysteriously stopped eating. The bottle that had gotten him into so much trouble, caused so many dilemmas, and had frequently landed him in jail, was ironically keeping him alive. He had this massive lump in his throat and was unable to swallow food, so the beer and gin he drank gave him much needed calories.
Donald had throat cancer! When we finally talked him into taking the trip to Cook County Hospital, he never returned to Uptown. He lived the remainder of his days recovering in the hospital and a west-side Nursing Home. After his surgery, he breathed through a traich and was unable to speak for quite a while, making it virtually impossible to communicate with him, as he couldn't write. A few of us would frequently visit him and it was such a blessing to see him reunited with his long-lost family. He made a good recovery, and he was at peace when he breathed his last in early 2012; over a year since he made that trip to Cook County Hospital. Here is a more detailed story about my relationship with this wonderful man who became my friend: Papa G: The Dilemma and the Continuing Saga....
Donald, I miss you. You taught me about the dreadful power of addiction and the need to persevere, because I discovered the real you in the hospital; a man no longer enslaved by the bottle. You taught me what a crippling disability it is to be unable to read or write in this modern technological society. You taught me to Love and to make every effort to mend broken relationships. It was a miracle to see your family showering you with love during your final months. Donald, your homeless friends loved you, and even though you aggravated them all, they stood up for you with great compassion. We were honored to see those endearing qualities that so many people missed. Until we meet again, may you truly Rest in Peace my friend!
GEORGE passed away in the twilight of 2012. This news hit us just after we found out that some governing bodies deemed it necessary that close a section of our men's shelter which actually housed our most vulnerable, fragile and elderly. Without getting into too many details, they did it by finding some loopholes, telling a few fibs and by lacking the compassion to stand up for the poor! Even though George was actually housed, the timing of his death and this particular closing is significant, because he occupied a bed in that section for a few months before he was successfully housed.
Before I elaborate on why I find this connection significant, I encourage you to read this: George: Homeless and Fragile... As you see, George opened my eyes to how homeless people (especially the old and sick) desperately need rest. Here was a man I had deemed in a helpless and hopeless situation, resurrected by the bed we had given him. He hadn't lost his mind, he didn't have dementia, he was just a sick man who shouldn't have been walking around all day, eating sporadically and sleeping wherever he could. George was someone who needed (absolutely NEEDED) a somewhere that could relieve him from his never-ceasing anxiety; he simply needed to rest, eat healthy meals and a consistent place to sleep every night. We provided that, and within 3 days, that confused, fragile and weak old man, resurrected into a new and healthier George.
George; we miss you, Uptown misses you. You showed me how the sick and fragile need a lot of tender loving care, how you need that place to let your body rejuvenate. I miss that compassionate heart of yours and the way you'd stand up for the weak. Rest in peace my friend; we love you!
The truth is, I only mentioned 6 people, but there are so many more I could have acknowledged. I'm talking about homeless men and women who have triggered something in my heart. I'm talking about people who challenged me to wrestle against the kingdoms of this world, and live in the Kingdom of God. Jesus announced and lived out something new, a Kingdom that turned the world upside down, by promoting weakness, love, humility and peace-making, while standing against the kingdoms that love wealth, violence, inequality, hatred and oppressive systems; a Kingdom that blessed the poor, those mourning, the pure in heart, peacemakers and those being persecuted; a Kingdom of people that humbly knelt in the mud to lift up the "least of these".
The truth is, the 6 men mentioned above are the very ones Jesus honors in His Kingdom, and yet there are so many more. I could have mentioned Curly who died in our lobby years ago and the ongoing plight of Native Americans. I could have mentioned Ben who died of AIDS and how I held his hand in the ICU. I could mentioned John, his battle with alcohol, the racial disparity in the prison system and how we held a simple memorial service on the loading dock where he passed away with about 6 other homeless friends. The truth is, I could have equally remembered Laverne, Clyde, Ben, Teresa, Juan, Troy, Michael and a host of other friends who vanished into the night. All their deaths sparked flames about too many issues. All these people were forgotten, ignored and oppressed by the kingdoms of this world, yet we can never forget, they are blessed by the King.
My heart goes out for each and every one of these men and women. I want to thank each and every one of them for teaching me and inspiring me. I want their names to linger on forever, I don't want them to be ignored or forgotten, because Jesus promises to lift the poor, marginalized and brokenhearted up and shower them with the Revolutionary Love of His Eternal Kingdom.
This can't just be a future or heavenly reality! Jesus bought His Kingdom to earth for more than just that. If we are followers of the One who proclaimed and lived out these radical words, we need to step out of our comfort zones and help bring His Kingdom to earth, NOW!
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."