One can discover a lot about a man through this simple procedure. One man waits patiently for his turn, another tries to push in, another manipulates his way up the line. A drunken sleepy man stooped in posture, an energetic twitching man grins talking to an imaginary friend and four friends joke, talk and laugh loudly with each other.
One gentleman who would grace us frequently at Macon Overnight Ministries during its whole 3 year existence was an Italian Polish 53 year old simply called Nick; he would stand quietly in line and keep to himself and suddenly splutter into a coughing fit dispersing the crowd around him with loud accusations of rampant TB. Ironically Nick never had Tuberculosis. Nick would jump in anger to his own defense, and we assured the crowd that he was not contagious.
Nick shuffled to the sign-in sheet and murmurs “hi Jeremy” and with snail-like swiftness awkwardly writes N I C K with his face several inches from the paper. No last name, no age and no signature. He often scribbled his name in the place he was not supposed to write on, hardly ever keeping his 4 letters between the 2 lines.
Nick lived with a horrific disability rarely seen or admitted on the shores of America. He was illiterate. He could not read or write a single lick, except for those 4 magic letters – N I C K. Until one witnesses such a man struggling through life, it is hard to put oneself in such a man’s shoes. Illiteracy affects every aspect of their lives.
Nick’s struggles did not end there. He had some horrible asthmatic and bronchial problems, issues dealing with excessive weight and mental illness and a host of medications; thus, we ended up calling 911 for him more than any other man. After a few nights in a hospital he would arrive again on our doorstep needing another night’s rest. Nick always wanted to offer something; he picked up a broom or mop and proceeded to clean, often resulting in rapid panting and the need to sit. We told him repeatedly that he did not need to help, but he insisted and would grab the broom. Nick had a heart of gold.
Penniless. Unemployed. Homeless. He did not fulfill society’s perception of homeless men; Nick was not a drug addict, an alcoholic, a criminal or a gang-banger. His curse was simply, he was unable to read or write. He was unable to breathe like the rest of us. But as with all of us, Nick was a human being searching for his God given purpose, eternal life free of suffering and for love. Nick experienced glimpses of that at Cornerstone.
We loved Nick. Nick loved us. He erupted with outbursts of emotion from time to time, but Nick was part of the Cornerstone family. We never knew of any family he had. A new guy would come in, ridicule, provoke and taunt this poor man, and many a CCO veteran would jump to his defense. Nick had found a family at CCO, and we proudly accepted him. We needed Nick! Nick needed us!
After months of encouraging Nick to join Harper House (our day time supportive service program), he enrolled, and we were able to help him more thoroughly. We spoke with the doctors who monitored his health and prescribed his medication from the local free clinic. We helped him take the right dosage. We helped him eat the right foods. He was losing weight, looking healthier and had gentler deposition.
Every night “The Word” was spoken to the men as they lay on their mattresses. For 20 – 30 minutes we expounded truth from the Word of God. It was Nick’s highlight in his long days. He waited in anticipation. As he sat up gazing at the speaker, he was angered when another made a noise and was frustrated when the wrong person delivered the message. He would burst out with a question as he tried to understand. He longed for “the Word”.
Out of the blue, the MOM and Harper House programs lost funding and they had to close. My thoughts and prayers went out to all the men; I knew some guys would take advantage of the situation, a lot would find their struggle harder and some would resort back to the life they had been fighting to defeat. The stories are immense! But, my heart went out to Nick; the question was how he would or could survive a brutal winter in Chicago. He did not end up in another shelter, in a transient hotel or a nursing home. His disability sadly caused Nick to disappear and sleep under any viaduct or tree. He was hard to find.
Three and half months later I heard on the streets, Nick had passed away, in mid December 2004, in a Chicago hospital. Through a little investigation I discovered he had pneumonia and an infection. The cold Chicago winter had captured his life.
I believe we were able to offer this lonesome warrior a little concern, a little love and Jesus. The “least of these” stood in our midst. Jesus loved Nick. Nick loved Jesus. I believe this lonely man passed into His loving eternal arms, where there will be no crying, no pain, no suffering and no injustice.
When I walk to the Shelter, I normally pass a number of men and women I personally know, who struggle with alcoholism and drug abuse. Most of them, being homeless or precariously housed, have isolated themselves from almost all social services and society. Because of their addictions, lack of impulse control and lapse in hygiene, they have become America’s ultimate rejects. This country’s poor of the poor! Sadly their lifestyle results in homeless shelters constantly having to bar them due to their extravagant behavior, yet ironically, a strong little community has formed.
This community of ex-offenders, drunks, prostitutes, crack heads and the mentally ill may seem ugly, but in reality, they have created a network of support and security. They eat, drink, fight, play and pray together. Amongst the chaos that constantly lingers, they have a system that functions to uphold one another, to cry for mercy and protect the weak. Whereas, they often indulge in illegal activities and enable each other’s addictions, their ultimate goal is to lift each other from their poverty! They are caught in a seemingly endless cycle that echoes their despair, yet in desperation and when opportunities arise they join forces to push their friend from that pit.
I have discovered that my calling is to infiltrate that community and offer answers and hope. They have welcomed me into their clique and I have found myself loving these men and women greatly. I mourn when they mourn, laugh when they laugh, play when they play and pray when called to pray, Yet, I also try to help them escape the vicious cycle of addiction, break the bonds of incarceration and be a peacemaker in their times aggravation and threats. I thank God for the loving relationship that has formed between us.
While they may welcome me with open arms, fist pumps and smiles; their beers and bottles of gin are placed in pockets, behind their legs and in other hiding places. Conversations also silence and their language changes. They do this out of respect and to keep certain activities in the dark! I have seen and heard the call of “here comes Jeremy” as I wander around the corner, momentarily any drinking ceases. Naturally, days also come when the intoxication peaks and tempers flare, the cops come and arrests are made as they struggle to keep hidden their obvious misdemeanors. God has gifted me with this sad, yet beautiful, position!
On Labor Day, I walked down the street to the cry, “Jeremy, look we’re all drinking today, ya want one?” and they all held up cans of sprite and laughed. Joking continued as they spoke of changing their addictions from alcohol to sugar! They show me four 12 packs of various sodas. After a few hours of work, I start wandering home and a usual suspect, Francis, approaches me snuggling a Natural Ice. We are discussing some of life’s concerns with Bernard, when 2 young men, looking out of place, approach us and mumbled a request. Francis and Bernard immediately act shocked claiming “we know nothing about that.” The young men slowly walk away, and Bernard tells me they wanted to buy a nickel bag of weed.
Jerome sits on a stoop daily. He continually drinks his woes away. Almost 60, he has never learnt to read and write. He has never been assessed and does not receive any income. His plight, like many serially inebriated homeless folk, is the fact that he has been ignored, despised and rejected, left to live in the literal gutter.
And who tries to pick him up, offer a glimmer of hope and give him a sense of fellowship? It is not the government and not even the Church. It was and remains to be, this community of rejects who are barely surviving. They intercede for him, begging for us to help give him shelter and meet his needs. And together, we fight to break the bondage that has gripped Jerome since his teenage years.
On a practical level, we have got his social security card, birth certificate from Alabama, school records and, most recently, his State ID. One of the loitering crew escorted him downtown to help him get his identification, and they all proudly celebrated this accomplishment and made fun of his photo, with his unkempt hair that made him look like Don King. We have also helped him set up appointments for housing and his medical needs. There has also been a concerted effort to help him apply for SSI online. It is a long and tiresome procedure! Often I need to find and see Jerome and all I need to do is send out a word. The community will hunt him down, and he’ll walk into my office faster than if I’d sent an e-mail.
It is a hard life for these folks, as their community is riddled with disease and death. This is not a case of drunkards needing to pull themselves up by their boot straps. This a group of people enslaved in bondage so strong and so deep, there does not seem to be answers. It is a corporate effort of people being willing to climb down into their world and live! A marvelous thing is witnessed by entering their world; hope, progress and miracles happen!
Amongst the stench of urine, sweat, alcohol and cigarette smoke, one often catches a whiff of a sweet smelling perfume. That perfume ignites a reminder of how Jesus sits on crate enjoying the company of America’s “least of these”. It reminds me of how their little community often shames Christian communities, and how we can and could learn from their examples of faith, generosity and love. It reminds me of the faithful widow generously giving her all; a mere mite. It reminds me that Jesus came to save sinners in need of a physician. That sweet smell reminds me of Jesus giving props to the sinner who prayed that simple prayer sobbing, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
I need to be reminded that within the Kingdom of Heaven, God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong and “God chose the lowly things of the world, and the things that are despised, and the things that are not, that he might bring to nothing the things that are.” Jesus upended the glory of money, strength and power, by simply proclaiming that within His Kingdom “the first shall be last, and the last, first!”
At work, I see the devastating effects of young men and women dedicating their lives to a Chicago gang. It will grip them and hold them and it won’t let go! They pledge allegiance to a philosophy, power and financial gain. The results are sometimes fatal, but at the very least, devastating. A dream was sold, a concept was grasped, a life was imprisoned and a family scattered!
As I ponder; I witness, speak to and engage these gangsters and realize a life behind bars is not just the physical reality of seeing the inside of Cook County Jail and an impending movement down state to another cell block. An internal imprisonment is granted as another young soul pledged allegiance to the “5 or 6 pointed star” nation! It is a bondage that is so strong, this young soul carries this burden his or her whole life. After seeing the dream was a lie, the now older soul struggles to tear this burden from his tired back only for it to remain and stick like super-glue!
Often in vain, I have discouraged the young from joining and encouraged the old to escape. Like an addiction, people flee only to find themselves embraced once again by the life “they know”. Ironically, I would say this is a life of uneasy security and uncomfortable comfort. My souls mourns over these imprisoned souls and I can only retreat to the wonderful gift of prayer, knowing this “power” or “force” is too great for mere mortals to tangle with. “Be still and know that I am God”
But, how different am I? They, like me, seek to live a life worthy of the heavenly kingdom. “What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me out of this body of death?” The battle in Romans 7 only echoes the inner turmoil of gang bangers seeking redemption. It is not an exclusive trait; it permeates throughout humankind seeking to devour its prey through our own pledging of allegiances to fleeting realities such as the flag, country, military, social status, family, sex, sports, church, music, technology and media! Yet, we cannot and must not forget the power and influence of money and materialism, which Jesus aptly gave the title “Mammon”, knowing humanity will struggle not to bow down and worship it.
My battle is to make sure that my allegiance bows to the foolishness of the cross, not the power and influence of kingdoms like Mammon and Technology. Dreams are sold and faith is lost, but the cross breaks the bondage and sets us free. Jesus told us plainly we cannot serve two masters, and the Kingdom of God is continually fighting against the many kingdoms that rise against it. Yet, we can rest in the beauty, seen in Revelation, that the weak Lamb murdered on a foolish cross defeated all kingdoms and beasts, and we can live in a resurrected hope!