“The poor are always prophetic. As true prophets always point out, they reveal God’s design. That is why we should take time to listen to them. And that means staying near them, because they speak quietly and infrequently; they are afraid to speak out, they lack confidence in themselves because they have been broken and oppressed. But if we listen to them, they will bring us back to the essential.” -Jean Vanier, Community & Growth
A homeless man just walked into the food bank to receive help. He’s a man well known to us here and in the community; and he knows that in order to receive certain supports he has to come into the building clean and sober. This here is a place that supports all people practicing sobriety, so our boundaries need to be clear around this issue.
Today was no such day.
He promised me up and down that he hadn’t been drinking, but his breath, his body movements, his clothes, and his speech all told me otherwise. Not only had he been drinking, but by his pungent odour beneath the alcohol, he had been drinking for a good many days.
It’s mid-summer here. For many local homeless people, it’s easier to survive living by the lake while the weather’s warm. Sometimes — not always, but sometimes — that means strings of days and nights of hard partying. It also means that when this kind of partying happens, not a lot of eating healthy food happens. Alcohol has a funny way of lying to our souls about what we really need. But when life is barely stirring at rock bottom, one often doesn’t care one way or the other of truth of things.
This man is also not quiet. He’s gentle and easygoing, but his long strings of words are shared with everyone and anyone. Yet I sense that when you say “they speak quietly and infrequently”, you don’t just mean literal introspection or cold silence. This man chatters on incessantly about town events, but speaks very little about himself.
His real self.
He’s already put on display as a town drunk, and he knows that’s how the world sees him.
Why fight the idea?
I gave him some food because he had given me his word I was only smelling last night’s binge (that and food should never be used as a power play). We need healthy boundaries here, yes, but everyone needs food to live. And he hadn’t eaten in a good long time.
How do we build community with each other? I, just another frontline worker, and he, a homeless fella without work and steep alcohol addiction — we’re both already in community together. We’re already here, in this space, awkward, smelly, and messy. I don’t just mean his filthy clothes or BO. I mean, too, my attitudes that some days are kind of ripe.
It’s so easy to dissolve into judgment, to tell him to get a job already, and to start making better choices. People yell this to him everyday. Some yell at him because they’ve been hurt: he’s taken money, broken promises, failed to show up, and backed away from helps offered to him. He’s burned many-a-bridge.
But then, many people have hurt him, failed him, assaulted him, robbed him, stripped him of dignity, and wounded him in ways he’ll never share with me. Others yell at him because they only see a dirty drunk, not because they actually know him or have had contact with him.
It’s easier to yell at the exposed people we deem ugly than it is to choose to be vulnerable ourselves.
I know very well that our economy is pretty depressed at the moment. Getting any old job at the moment isn’t a reality even for the most ardent pavement-pounders. Even if employment was possible, who would wait an appropriate amount of time for this man to pass a drug test? Who would give him clean clothes that fit to wear to an interview (clothes not yanked out of great-grandpa’s closet)? Who would give him a safe, sober place to stay until a salary allowed for a little rental unit?
And all of this is just looking at employment needs.
This barely touches the reality that this man has no reason to trust his community. Job or no job, who are the folks willing to be his healthy friends? Who are going to be the ones to tell him how great of a person he is? How sweet he is for carrying groceries for elderly ladies? How important he is to the world?
I’m left a little speechless and ashamed.
Not me, surely!
I get to go home the end of the day, close my door, and not even recognize who’s living outside of that door until I choose to emerge. This man has no such luxury. He’s a life on display, and humanity seems to believe that lives on display are open season for judgment and ridicule. Walls are a hallmark of the privileged indeed.
Maybe I need to lend a more gentle ear to this man’s long stories. Perhaps hidden within them are golden nuggets expressing his heart. He has more to say over our community, over life, and over mystery than we’ll allow him for.
Prophets surely aren’t welcome in their hometowns.
He’s lived here in his entire life, and I’ve only lived here a decade. Yet he lives as more of an outcast than I ever have or will.
Jean, am I dampening a prophetic cry by seeing only what I choose to see? By his smell? By his manipulation?
We’re all afraid of being swindled or taken for granted. How do I release this fear yet still respond to this prophet in ways that will transform?
I have yet to come to a tangible, truthful response.
Until next time,