Originally written for the Just Lutheran Blog.
“Your money would be much better spent supporting the Faithful Fools in their work than hiring a security guard.” I did not expect to hear that sentiment expressed by a police captain. It was a great affirmation, and a reminder that we have allies in unexpected places.
It was 2004, and Kay Jorgensen and I were meeting with representatives of the T.V. station, the Catholic Archdiocese, the Longshoreman’s Union, and the condominiums which share a block of Franklin Street with the Unitarian Universalist Church. One of the condo residents had called a series of meetings to address what they saw as a growing problem of homeless panhandlers on their street. What they saw as a problem, Kay and I had come to know as Bruce, Jay, Johnny, and T.
They spent most nights sleeping on the steps of the church or some section of sidewalk in the vicinity, and Bruce, Jay, and Johnny spent their days begging for change. None of us knew their whole stories: how they ended up on the streets, who their families were, what they were like as children, what experiences or decisions might have led them to this point in their lives, or what their dreams were.
The neighborhood group did end up hiring a security guard for about a year, and Kay and I - along with other Fools - continued to get to know these four men, and help them out here and there - sometimes with a couple of dollars, or a hospital visit, a trip to the welfare office or drug treatment center, or a phone call to their mom.
As time went on, each of them made great changes in their life circumstances. Johnny reconnected with his mom, moved to Texas and, with the help of physical therapy, got out of his wheelchair and started walking again. T found his way to the top of a housing waiting list, and moved indoors. Bruce broke free of his addiction to heroin, was approved for Social Security Disability (including a 9-year retroactive payment), got a brand new apartment, a motorcycle, got married, and adopted a dog from the SPCA before succumbing to a chronic illness and dying in 2009.
Finally, Jay received word this month that he, too, has been approved for Social Security. Over the past eight years, we have gone to countless doctors’ appointments and meetings at the county welfare office, written letters of support, passed on phone messages, helped stay in touch with family, been there to hear good and bad news, gratefully received volunteer energy, and done our best to be faithful friends.
These men’s stories - or any of ours - aren’t over yet. There will be more meetings, appointments, good and bad news, and friendship, and the effects they’ve had on our lives and others’ will continue, even beyond death. The on-going relationship is why we are here, and it is in moments like these we are invited to remember to celebrate what we have done together.
In each of our interactions with a world that is not quite how we wish it were, we have a choice to distance ourselves from the discomfort, by doing something like hiring a security guard, or to move toward the discomfort and through trying to understand, open the door to healing. In this new year, the story of our friends on Franklin St strengthens my resolve to enter into relationship, rather than to call on my own inner security guard* to help keep me separate.
*No offense to the many caring security personnel I have encountered who use genuine relationship as a tool to do their job.