Tragedy And Exhilaration

My life in Uptown is often a confusing mess of both tragedy and exhilaration!
My life in Uptown is often wrought with so much contradictory life and death!
My life in Uptown is often surrounded by countless conflicts and celebrations! 

This chaos causes me to seek the needed space to breathe and pray.
This chaos causes me to crave time to sit back and reflect.
This chaos causes me to covet a vacation away from all the hustle and bustle.

I enjoy my life. I love my whanau (family). I am happy!
I enjoy what I do. I love where my journey has taken me and the direction it's going; this journey has taken me and is taking me far beyond my expectations and dreams. I am truly blessed!
I enjoy the unexpected surprises that rock my world. I love how my life isn't controlled by anything mundane, but how things cling to me with unusual expectations and challenging dreams. I am optimistic and hopeful! 

The truth is, I really do love this life I'm blessed to be living. It's unusual and strange, but I like that! Bu there's another truth: I also crave times of relaxation, and dare I say it, sometimes I find myself seeking boredom! I crave times when I can let my overly active mind just "chill-lax", when I do not have to worry about the never-ending issues I find myself having to analyze and solve! I crave times when I can escape to a peaceful place, where trouble and conflict isn't seeking me out! 

.....so recently, I was blessed to get just that! It was just last month, that I returned from flying down to beautiful Aotearoa (NZ) with my whanau, where I sought and found that much-needed peace and tranquility! Here I am; having just escaped the hectic city I love (Chicago) and now call home, and returned (briefly) to my other home I so dearly love! Here I am; I sought sabbatical rest, sought to be touched by our merciful God, sought to be renewed, revitalized and replenished! And I'm happy to say, "down-under", I found those things....

Chicago emphatically is in my heart; but it's chaos never ceases, it's heartbeat is always rapidly pounding and there's always something calling for my attention! I love it, but I also need timely breaks, as my life is constantly smacked with a con-fuddling mess of both tragedy and exhilaration!

During the month leading up to our family's much-needed and coveted "getaway", the tragedy and exhilaration in our lives heightened dramatically. Beth and I both work with people experiencing homelessness, and this means that we're constantly surrounded by life and death, conflicts and celebrations. The drama simply doesn't disappear because we may crave a mellow night, just chilling together as a family! No, it doesn't work like that, tragedy and exhilaration continues in Uptown, despite my wants, needs and wishes! 

During this month, (May), I knew 5 men who sadly died. They all died too young. The truth is, people who experience the hardships of homelessness have a far lower life expectancy than the National average. These 5 men's ages ranged from their mid 60s down to 38.

Isaac was a Vietnam veteran who had struggled with various bouts of homelessness and health issues, sadly he died in his apartment I helped him get into. I'd met him at a Church service called The Bridge (a place where I preach once a month) and was homeless last year, but he moved into Friendly Towers and found his final earthly home there. Isaac loved the Lord, had a heart of gold and was always trying to do right. Rest in peace my friend; I'm going to miss driving you to The Bridge and hearing your extensive knowledge and stories of both Chicago and Vietnam!

Jesus was one of our cooks at CCO. Uptown's homeless community loved him, as every morning, he faithfully provided a delicious breakfast for whoever came through our doors. He was tragically hit by a van as he walked home one afternoon. Ola, his wife, also works for us. When she heard, she phoned me to "come quickly". It was shocking! It was intense! It was tragic! He died that night. Beth and I rushed to the hospital. Those days involved a lot of support for his grieving wife and many in Uptown's homeless community who loved and respected this humble man. We held a beautiful memorial service for a hardworking man who departed us too early. Rest in Peace Jesus; thank you for your serving heart.

The streets and parks of Uptown knew Jeff well. Maybe too well! He lived and drank on them. He was only 38, and he'd lost his beloved partner Mary just a year earlier. He was a sweet soul, who's body was contaminated by a severe seizure disorder and a crippling addiction to alcohol. But, Jeff didn't die on the streets, he had just moved into his own crib and there he had his final seizure. Father Powell held a memorial Mass for him, where a photo of Jeff proudly holding his keys was displayed; it was truly a beautiful service, where both Jeff and Jesus Christ were honored. Rest in Peace Jeff; you are missed and I wish many others had got to see that sweet and humble side of you. 

I didn't know Rico very well. He slept in the parks of Uptown and Edgewater. During the coldest nights of winter, he'd come and stay at CCO. Sadly, one morning they found Rico dead, curled up in a fetal position. They're still investigating, but the rumor is he died from "blunt trauma". Sadly, Rico's death symbolizes a daunting reality; those who are homeless are far more likely to be victims, than perpetrators, and far too many deaths are ignored and coated in mystery! We may never know what happened, and earthly justice may never be served, but you're in the Lord's hands now; Rest in Peace my friend!

Yet another mystery. Another young life taken far too early. The 65 men at Epworth woke up one morning, to find that one of their companions "on the trail", sadly wouldn't wake up with them. Only 40 years old, and his heart stopped beating. This quiet young man was putting in the effort, going to school and getting his degrees. He was trying to make the best out of a bad situation. No one spoke ill of him. I became a counselor to his distressed aunt on several occasions, as these phone calls were painful tearjerkers. We grieved together, as she shared some of his family's tragic tales and how he ended up homeless. Ryan was rising, only to mysteriously fall. Rest in Peace Ryan; I wish I'd known you better.

Trying to process these 5 deaths isn't easy. 5 different people with 5 different personalities, tragically departing this world with 5 different stories. In dying, some received earthly recognition, others didn't! So this is my weak attempt to try and give each one of them a little honor and recognition here. 

As life keeps on moving, and even while still dealing with the grief, exhilaration happens. Life weaves and moves at a rapid pace, while one person is screaming "grieve with me", another person is asking me to leap for joy with them. It's the way it is! Tragedy and exhilaration are constantly tugging at me from both sides.

During the same time-period, while I was weeping over my 5 friends dying, I also celebrated with 5 friends who successfully moved from homelessness to housed. I won't get into all the details, but all their stories are wonderful testimonies of love, perseverance, dedication, determination and collaboration. 

Again all 5 of them have vastly different personalities and stories, and we cannot be guilty of lumping all homeless people into the same stereotypes. Yet, each and every one of them is united in a story of struggle and trauma, and also the ability to persevere and overcome. 

While some needed just a little nudge-up, others had fallen as "low as they could go" and needed to be hoisted up with a lot of blood, sweat and tears! We all need one another, as all 5 of them needed various forms assistance from other people to complete their journeys from homelessness to housed. 

Chrisy, Angela and her family, Priscilla, Richard and Jeff all experienced homelessness for various periods of time. 3 of them had battled vicious addictions and illnesses for decades. These 3 had also drifted in and out of homelessness for an equally long period of time, begging God that this episode would be their last and they'd finally overcome the enormous hurdles in their lives! All 5 of them had vastly different reasons why they were homeless at this time, but they were all united in one thing; they wanted a place to call their own, and during this month, they all achieved that goal! 

One of these troopers, is someone I've known since I came to Chicago almost 2 decades ago. Known as Red, and because of serious health issues and a horrifying addiction to alcohol, I'd heard multiple rumors of him dying throughout the years, but he kept on resurfacing. During this chaotic month, the normal fear of tragedy, transformed to exhilaration, as I was elated to help him get a crib to call his own. It was a few month's ago, that he was so continually drunk, sleeping behind dumpsters in snowy alleys, that we feared for his life once again. Eventually, another person "on the trail" brought him in for help. His feet were numb, blistered and frostbitten. After a couple attempts, I sent him to a drug treatment center, someone else at CCO put him on housing lists and now he's successfully living in his own apartment, clean and sober!

As this month weaved between these intense moments, I cannot forget all the other moments scattered throughout this time, causing both conflicts and celebrating within me! 

One Sunday, I spent hours in Cook County Jail, helping out a friend who desperately asked for my assistance. Another person I'm close to, came home from prison at the start of the month. I helped him out extensively, only to see him end up back in the Joint later that same month for violating his parole. I know others who were arrested, incarcerated or released during the month. Each and every one of these tales are tragic, disappointing and tiresome, because once those cuffs go on, they're caught in a system that doesn't forgive and keeps them captive well beyond the days that they were locked in a cage! Yet, it causes exhilaration within me when I see people conquer and overcome the enormous hurdles that being arrested and incarcerated have helped elevate! 

Throughout this month, as I continually dealt with the residual effects of death, incarceration and homelessness, there were also countless reasons to celebrate. When I help someone who's homeless get housed, it's an amazing experience, but there were plenty other moments of exhilaration. My life is surrounded by traumatized people who are blessed by the simplest gifts; a warm meal, a pair of socks, a transit card, a mat to sleep on or finally getting their birth certificates! These never ending needs may seem small and speak of societal tragedy, but they simultaneously cause exhilaration and celebration, as they give a boost and hope to people in desperate need! 

There were 2 more important reasons to celebrate in May; Beth and I celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary and our oldest, Cyrus, turned 12. Whereas, home and community life also has it's own tales of tragedy and exhilaration, my primary focus here is on the confusing mess, and rich blessings, of working with those experiencing homelessness.

Jeff's story of tragedy and exhilaration challenges me! My friend went from being chronically homeless, to being successfully housed, and then a week later, he sadly died in that apartment we'd put so much effort into getting. As I sat in Jeff's memorial service, we all mourned his untimely death, while also celebrating a now "seizure-free" Jeff, because we know Jesus as One who embraces and loves "the poor in spirit" and elevates the "least of these". 

Jeff's life and death challenges me to embrace whatever comes my way, whether good or bad. Jeff's life and death challenges me to "be still, and know that God is God!", knowing that He turns everything upside down and around with His Infinite Loving Wisdom. The Kingdom of God shines brightly throughout both our tragedy and exhilaration!

My example is Jesus, who empowers me to follow Him despite the hardships and stresses we face! He faced all the depths of tragedy and the joys of exhilaration in his life and death. Even though His life was overwhelming and He often wanted be alone in silence, He embraced each moment, showering them all with His love and compassion. His death and resurrection is our ultimate story of tragedy and exhilaration, which in turn, empowers us all to embrace our weaknesses, so we may also live and act in that same resurrection power!  

When people enter our doors, or I bump into someone on the street, I know there will be times of feeling utterly overwhelmed, but I need to remember and pray, because every day is an opportunity to let the Kingdom of God shine through each and every one of us. 
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