It was raining again when I walked out of church—a slow spritz that would invoke a guffaw in the saturated Northeast. But in Southern California it was, Oh yay, rain! I smiled, raised my umbrella, and headed across the street.
And I saw him standing there. A robust young man. Facing the church, holding a cardboard "help" sign. My first, cynical thought: Panhandling, of course. Get them coming out of church, stoked with a good sermon on 'doing unto others.' He was directly between me and the parking lot, and to evade him would have looked obvious. Yeah, evasive. We know it well. We don't really see.
So I walked directly up to him. His eyes were intensely blue, clear, observant—the word benevolent occurred to me. Strangely, because he was seeking our benevolence. He might have been handing out bonbons or tracts, for the look on his face. Not a tinge of down and out.
"Hi, my name's Michael.” His declaration was quiet, well-modulated. "I'm an ex-Marine, on disability."
He paused briefly.
"Or I was...but the checks quit coming. I'm trying to get through the legalese and straighten it out. I'm supposed to have more surgery." He stopped and lifted the cuff of his knee-length khakis. His leg was distorted, and a rough thatch of scarring ran from ankle to mid-thigh, where it disappeared under cover. He looked straight at me.
"Afghanistan,” he said. “I survived. Got patched up, discharged. And lost my home, lost my address, pension, medical . . . lost it all." It was matter-of-fact, direct. "I need a bus pass to go get V.A. help. A monthly pass—so I can go back and forth and deal with all the paperwork and stuff."
"Where are you staying?" He obviously wasn't rumpled and un-bathed, unshaved.
He swiveled, pointed behind him. "Oh, there's a shelter a few blocks down. No computers. Nothing but a free bed and a washing machine. Me and 250 other guys." He smiled ruefully. And then he grinned, like the sun suddenly showing through.
"God knows where I am. The bus will take me where I need to go." He said it quietly, carefully. He was watching me closely, but it wasn't a ploy. It was a question, without wording it.
Michael came to us—not complaining, but simply telling his need and asking what modest thing could we do to help get him through this hitch in his get-along.
We talked a bit more about that—the ways that God sustains. Finally, I dug into my wallet. My husband came by, assessed the basics and added on. A sister scurried over, carrying a jacket, and helped him into it, adding a bright purple umbrella and a quick hug. We all laughed at "purple."
We talked like friends do—damp and undampened by weather or "whethers." With a suddenness that amazed me, we were a small, brief family. This man was our brother, taking a risk, setting himself before us whole and broken, trusting in our broken wholeness.
Michael was our unfamiliar friend who needed a daily ride to the right place for the right reasons. Because God knows where he needs to go.
The Michaels of our world have been defeated by indifference. By bureaucracies that regularly ignore/avoid too many "Michaels," and leave them stranded. By nations preoccupied with real or supposed exigencies, and cities that have grown apathetic about the "dregs of humanity" that litter their sidewalks and make everyone uncomfortable simply by being. And we, by our preoccupation with the nitty-gritties of our own lives, and yes, by our own care-less-ness. I have often been guilty. My city is guilty. They know it, they confess it. Our society is engulfed in this plague of indifference and rarely confesses it. It continues and escalates.
The Biblical story of the Good Samaritan comes to mind here. His inner vision wasn't focused on his own pending situation—the whys and wherefores of his journey, the preoccupations of purpose. The man, something of a pariah himself, had "sideways vision" also.
He looked to the side of the road. He checked the ditches, walking by. And stopped when needed.
The barriers to our benevolence. We do not clearly see the peripheral "other." Not really. Only a smelly, messy, chronic, dysfunctional other. We measure lives by what they have become or we assume they have become, hunched into their misery. We seldom wonder how they got "there," how their lives unraveled, how the right people crossing the street at the right moment (one infinitesimal example) might begin to change the outcome.
We overlook the poverty that hovers over the Appalachians and the dead-end tenements in too many cities, the hovels adjoining crop fields, the encampments that metastasize beneath urban freeways and spill onto our avenues. All the whys and wherefores escape us.
The endless poverties spin on and out . . . "all for the want of a horseshoe nail." *
"For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail."
Indifference is the missing nail. We fail to see sideways, to perceive, the wretched someone at the side of the road, or in the emergency room . . . and beyond him/her, a thousand-thousand more. The deteriorating state of humanity. The poverty, the hopelessness home-grown and worldwide. Here, it has become simply a familiar backdrop to life, nearby or out of sight. Beyond our shores, it is often a cataclysm.
When mankind is ready, ultimately, to fight the right battles, to face the inner myopias, to call out, to cry out that we might see through a glass less darkly—to wage peace against the war within and with-out—then a new Kingdom will take shape before us, finally, our eyes clear-seeing.
*This ancient proverb, in various forms, has been quoted and repeated for varying uses over the centuries, particularly in Early British writing. Benjamin Franklin also made note of it.
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