Everything I know about community, I learned from a homeless person.
If you’ve seen a street person get a new pair of boots and pass his old pair to another who has none, you know what I mean. If you’ve had the joy of watching someone move into housing for the first time in 10 years, yet take time to request their tent or sleeping bag be re-issued to someone who still lives outside, you know what I mean. And you certainly know what I mean, if you’ve witnessed the things a person without a home is willing to do to make sure not only they, but others in their situation have what is needed to survive.
There is something about “street culture” that sends me home everyday with a different understanding of our world. “How is it,” I wonder, “that people who can’t claim a single valuable thing in the world can know so much about taking care of one another.” These people have rejected anyone who ever loved them. They have been disowned by their own families. What makes them want to take the time to care for anyone else that falls in their path?
One winter night, I got my answer. The sun was setting and the temperature was forecast to skim the 20 degree mark. A set of homeless campers was just securing their site and anticipating their walk to catch the bus to the cold weather shelter. As they prepared to leave, one among the group spotted a small dog trapped at the bottom of the hill near the riverbank. He eased himself down the jagged rock, intent on rescuing the pup. But just as he neared the entrapment, the earth gave way, and down he plunged into the frigid water. The frightful tumble iced his lungs and froze his limbs. He mouthed the words that called for help, but not a sound could pierce the frost on his lips. He lay in the water, unable to tread and beginning to sink. But just as he decided his life was about to end, he felt his companions lugging him from the water. As everyone was out of phone minutes, one man set off on foot to get help. By the time Micah staff and emergency personnel arrived, the other campers had stripped his wet clothing and swaddled him in whatever dry campsite rubbish they could find. Their efforts, we later learned, were the difference between this man’s mild case of hypothermia and an early trip to a cold grave.
It was the next morning around Micah’s breakfast table that I found myself in awe of the care this community had for each other. Those involved in the rescue reflected on the experience. They didn’t poke fun. They didn’t sneer or even complain. As one woman put it, “We’re family. We don’t have a lot, but we have each other. And our survival depends on us caring for one another as if they were our brother, sister, mother or father.”
They give up what they have for others who need something more. They go out of their way to carry extra meals from community dinners to those whose paranoia keeps them from going themselves. They work together to collect aluminum cans so that those who owe can pay thousands of dollars in debt at 50 cents a pound. And they rejoice over college graduation, when the dumpsters are full of gently used book bags, left over dorm-wares and even the occasional scooter.
Yet, we who live in houses don’t think to recycle. We toss out perfectly good furniture, clothing and other “junk.” We think nothing of a $20 meal, of which we only finish half. We can’t find time to volunteer. We have nothing good to say about the jobs we drag ourselves to each day. And we look down our nose at others who have less, proclaiming their lives could be just as fruitful as ours if they’d just stop drinking, take medication for the voices in their heads and get a job.
But after living on the streets, learning the way that the most desperate care for one another, what reason do we give them to return to the mainstream world. Where is the incentive in a society that blacklists anyone with a criminal background? Why should they stop drinking, when no one believes them capable of anything more? What reason do we give them to improve their behavior, when we dismiss them with the scarlet letter of mental illness? And who can dare say they’d be any better off doing any of the things we think they should do, when the only relationships they believe in are among those in the same situation that they are. In the mainstream world they are outcasts. In the homeless world they are family.
Much like the man Jesus describes in the story of the Good Samaritan, our homeless have been robbed, beaten and left to die by the sum of many life circumstances. And for whatever reason, person after person passes them by. But when there is seemingly no one to show compassion, Jesus calls the community to live into the role of the Good Samaritan. We must patch their wounds, hoist them onto our donkeys and carry them as far as they are willing to go. It is this kind of mercy, Jesus calls us to show to our neighbor.
And who is our neighbor?
I think we get a pretty good idea from the kinds of people Jesus chose to associate with–the lepers, the blind, the adulterers, the paralytics, the tax collectors, the sinners, the sick, the possessed, the lost, the lonely and the least.
Like I said, EVERYTHING I know about community, i learned from a homeless man.