Bringing Life Out of the Decay!
A little less than a year ago, we struggled through another harsh and brutal Chicago winter, and through it, I was (once again) reminded how "life and death" rests in my feeble and incapable hands. This season is difficult, I always feel inept, as the needs are constantly there and are often life threatening. This daunting reality is very real and the weight is extremely heavy....
As I write this, I have a few friends who weigh heavily on my heart and in my mind. I know of 4 men who lost toes last winter, due to frostbite! I know plenty of others who got frostbitten; they had blackened skin and were on the brink of losing digits, but were thankfully rescued before it got too bad and deep.
I want to highlight one of these guys: He was homeless, sleeping in the parks and under the viaducts of both Uptown and Edgewater. He told me about one frigidly cold November night; he was sleeping on a park bench and someone had the audacity to steal his warmest blanket, leaving his feet exposed to the elements! This cold-hearted act of thievery resulted in my friend getting badly frostbitten and having hypothermia. Thankfully, the police found him and took him to a local hospital, where he had to have all 5 toes amputated off on one foot and his whole foot chopped off on the other.
My friend's dramatic story didn't stop there, because somehow through all this trauma, and while still in the hospital, his heart stopped beating, where he had to be resuscitated back to life. It was "touch-n-go" for a while, but thankfully, he lives to tell this tale.
My friend recovered in a Nursing Home, where he had to learn to walk again with a prosthetic limb. On a positive note, this traumatic event gave him something that homelessness had isolated him from; he was able to reunite with his daughters and a brother; family members he hadn't seen or spoken to for many years! Today, there is yet another reason to celebrate; he recently moved into his own apartment.
Experiencing homelessness is not a luxury; it's downright messy, straight-up dangerous and frequently life threatening! It's not just the brutal Chicago weather; those experiencing homelessness are often victims of callous hate crimes, they are arrested simply because they live outside or in shelters, they are bullied by our city's leaders because they look unsightly and they are exposed to many elements that increase the likelihood of disease, decay and death!
Into this scenerio, I believe it's our responsibility, as followers of Jesus, to bring Life into all the decay that surrounds us. We need to be salt and light in this diseased and dark world. By living out the Revolutionary Love Jesus demonstrated, and by bringing the Kingdom of God to earth, I believe we will end up delaying the fate of death and bringing Life into our decaying communities!
This year, we'll continue doing what we did last year! An action which has saved and will save both lives and limbs. We'll open the doors to our warming center, so society's most vulnerable citizens can stumble in for help. We'll drive around and pick up people trying to stay warm under viaducts, and bring them inside, where they can sleep, take a shower and snuggle under a blanket. Outreach workers, the police and friends will drop off freezing homeless men and women to our doors, and we'll take them inside. The brutal reality is; as the winter lingers on, the need and desperation never ceases.
Last winter, my friend couldn't rescue his foot or toes, but changing focus and looking to the positive side, there were many toes, fingers, feet and lives that were saved! We picked up one elderly fella sleeping under the Lawrence viaduct with barely any coverings, brought him into CCO, where he was able to warm up and get some sleep. I don't know if he would have survived that frigid night; as he lay there, shivering in pain, frostbite had started to attack his naked wet fingers. He remained with us for quite a while, and during his stay, we were able to help him beyond just food and a warm bed, we assisted him with dry socks, clean pants, case management, a coat and many other necessities. His words to this day are; "I would have died out there, you guys saved my life! Thank you! Thank you!"
Jesus told a powerful parable in Matthew 25, where He encourages and expects his followers to embrace those who are downtrodden and neglected, just like He did! He doesn't want us to "walk on by" or ignore those needing assistance. In this parable, which is commonly called "The Sheep and the Goats", Jesus goes beyond just telling us to have sympathy on those "down on their luck", He actually makes this very bold and ridiculous revolutionary statement: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40 NIV)
Jesus is telling His listeners that when we give blankets or a meal to someone sleeping under the viaduct, we are giving them to Him! But He also looks at it another way; Jesus is also telling us that when someone sits on the side of the road, shivering in ratty clothes with an empty old McDonald's cup, and we walk on by, we have just ignored and forsaken Him. In this parable, Jesus tells us that He is the "least of these"; He is that homeless fella sleeping rough under the viaduct, He is that homeless mother who escaped her abuser to live at our shelter, He is also her frightened children, He is that disturbed mentally ill beggar living in a nursing home who bugs us for 25 cents every day, He is that lonely prisoner locked up in Cook County Jail, He is that poor HIV positive man who lives in a transient hotel searching for a healthy meal and He is that poverty stricken transgender women who's looking for love, because she's been bashed, abused and rejected countless times by friends, family and authority figures!
Even though I work in a homeless shelter and dwell among the "least of these", if I'm truly honest with myself, I'm guilty too! I write this to challenge myself; especially as we enter another cold harsh Chicago winter! I write this, to remind myself not to walk on by, but to embrace those perishing around me! I write this, to reflect on the need to see Jesus in the eyes, bodies and souls of all those decaying in my midst.
As we enter the next season of pneumonia, frostbite and hypothermia, I meditate on these challenging and convicting words of Jesus, knowing I will see Him time and time and time again....
"I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me."
(Matthew 25:35-36 MSG)
This upcoming winter, I have absolutely no doubt, we'll see plenty of those who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, shivering, sick and incarcerated, and I need to respond! I also have absolutely no doubt we live in a world full of decay, disease and death, and into that reality, I pray I will play my part to help bring forth Life! I pray that within Uptown, all our lights will shine brightly in the darkness!