Who is your neighbor?
The afternoon sun warmed the downtown sidewalks as Black Friday shoppers strolled through the historic district.
There were sales to find, Thanksgiving leftovers to eat and relatives to entertain.
No one had time to notice the comatose man who had curled up on a bed of mulch in a church parking lot. If they did, the brief acknowledgment left them considering him a unwanted stranger rather than neighbor in need.
By the time I found him, he’d blown his panhandling money on the second or third bottle of vodka. And he had spent Thanksgiving Day propped against the back wall of the lot because he couldn’t walk enough to reach the many dinners available that day. If he hung near the church buses, he thought, at least he would catch a ride back to the winter shelter that night.
As I would later learn, the man’s life had been rudely disrupted just six years prior. While he survived a series of massive strokes, his left eye went blind, wrist curled into a ball and leg went completely dead, such that he could only drag it slowly behind him. Fiercely independent, he refused the most appropriate solution—assisted living. But his minimal social security left him grossly deficient on income enough to rent an apartment and manage his extensive needs. The longer he spent on the streets, the angrier he became and more he scraped a narrow amount of joy from the bottom of a liquor bottle.
Now, here he was in my community—left behind by a ride who seized the opportunity to move on when he fell in a parking lot and broke his shoulder.
In all honesty, I didn’t have time to deal with him either. It was a rare day off and an especially warm fall afternoon at that. The list of other things I could have been doing was extensive, but for whatever reason God put this man in my path.
So, I plopped down on the curb and decided to make him a friend.
While the next two months would put our team to task—restarting benefits that had been shut off, making sure he had a safe place to stay, advocating for him in the community and organizing his care—we walked a fine line. Playing hardball might have convinced him to accept the long-term care he needed, but leaving him to his own devices could have brought him to a miserable death.
Now, I admit these kinds of predicaments cross my path far more often than I think is fair. That is not to suggest a burden on myself, or the team working within the ministry. It is unfair that anyone’s daily survival would depend on another to make tough decisions about the role they might play, or not, in their very fragile lives.
The story that comes to mind, in these instances, is that of Mark 5:21-43. After a long day of teaching, Jesus was summoned to heal the dying daughter of Jarius—an important figure in the local synagogue. He didn’t say he was tired. He didn’t say he had other things to do or that the task was too insurmountable. Not only did he leave the crowd that had been awaiting his arrival and travel to Jarius’s home, he also found the time to stop to heal another woman desperate for his care.
Jarius, of course, was furious. He got to Jesus first and his daughter’s situation was dire. As a matter of fact, Jesus would take so much time with the woman who stopped him on the way that Jarius’s daughter would actually die before they arrived.
We might wonder in this story why Jesus couldn’t keep a better to do list, set more effective boundaries or simply prioritize. But Jesus knew something really important about his ministry. The poor woman on the way was just as much his neighbor as the dying daughter of the elite.
At the end of the day, the poor woman was healed after twelve years of bleeding and Jarius’s daughter was brought back to life. There was room in the story for both to experience the miracle of the kingdom.
As for my friend, stopping to intervene in his circumstances as Christ did for the bleeding woman would require a lot of everyone involved in our ministry. Volunteers would stop to pick him up and bring him to us when he was stuck somewhere in town. Many hours would be spent in the ER. The phone would ring late at night because he had fallen somewhere and ended up in the hospital. He would make three laps through our respite shelter before finally landing in safe and stable housing.
But what happened next is the real miracle of the story.
After getting moved in—apartment furnished and some in home care set up—he says to one of our case managers, “Are you all done with me now?” What he was saying is that everyone he had encountered for the last six years had found him so difficult that they either gave up or got him out of their world so they could move on to the next person in need.
This time, that didn’t happen. Someone stopped long enough to notice his bleeding. Suddenly, he was just as important as all the other needs waiting to be met. And as a result, he got to experience the relentless, always pursuing, never give up on you kind of love that only God can give.
“You all are just angels,” he said that day in his brand new living room “God blessed me when he put you in my path.”
It tickled me to think that he thought God brought me to him, when all along I was pretty sure that God put him in mine.