When Someone is Covered in Shit

While sitting outside talking to Anne, I see Cindy look at me from across the porch and know she's going to come over and ask for something. Her floral dress hangs down to the ground with a brownish smear, a stain, and she quickly gathers the fabric forward to hide it.

"Do you have any extra pants?"

There are no extra pants but I tell her I'll go and look. I do this sometimes when I don't want the first thing I say to someone to be, "No."

"What size are you honey?" Anne interrupts.

Cindy tells Anne her size and Anne goes into her bag and pulls out rumpled pair of pants, saying, "These are too big for me." She also pulls out a t-shirt and hands it over to Cindy.

Cindy thanks Anne and shuffles toward the door. It's obvious she's also made a mess of the back of her dress and her shoes and her socks. Inside, the bathroom is blessedly in a rare unoccupied state.

By the time Cindy retrieves what she needs out of her pack, the bathroom is occupied again. Cindy looks through the little tub of donated hotel soaps and shampoos we set out for showers. One night someone walked in off the street, picked a thick bar of soap out of the tub and took a bite out of it like it was a cookie.

I can smell Cindy now. I ask Cindy if she's going to be able to clean herself up. I tell her she's number twelve on the shower list and we usually only get through ten showers on a shift. I don't stop to listen to her. The words are tumbling out of me.

I say, "I want you to be able to take a shower now. Is that okay with you?"

She says yes. I simultaneously feel like a Very Good Person and want to get her into the shower room and be finished with her.

She chokes a little and starts crying as I turn away. "I'm so embarrassed. I'm sorry to be a bother and make a mess. I'm so embarrassed."

I'm finally listening to her now. I see her, for the first time, as a child. I encounter her now as a person, not a problem.

Cindy emerges from the shower room after her allotted time and takes a seat at a table. The next person on the list calls me over and says, "Uh, can you guys clean that up?"

Poop is smeared on the floor, on the radiator, on the toilet.

As the mop bucket fills, Shani, a regular volunteer, pops her head in and asks if wiping up the mess with paper towels first might be best. That's what I was thinking too.

"Okay, hand me some gloves and I'll get started," she says.

The mop bucket is full now and Shani is crouched down wiping up poop and putting dirty paper towels in a bag. This is a radical act of love for Network, for Cindy, and ultimately for Christ, which Shani undertakes like it's nothing.

Our humanity lives closer to meekness than to strength. Vulnerability and mercy make us transparent to ourselves and present to our neighbor, while security and confidence conceal. We are children, all of us, reaching out and up, only asking to be embraced by love.

The Absent Church

Last week at Network Coffeehouse I spoke to a man who had been released from DOC (Department of Corrections—aka prison) the week before. He was released with all his earthly possessions in a backpack, a list of services around Denver, and a voucher for clothes. After he was released, he hooked up with a woman who quickly disappeared with everything he owned.

My impression was that he knew no one, had no real connections in Denver, and wasn't sure what he would do next except check in with his parole officer.

Two things occurred to me while speaking to him.

First, the irony of his experience. For many people living in homelessness, the major factor contributing to their condition is an inability to connect and attach to other people. Ironic, then, that this man had trusted someone who immediately contributed to making his condition worse.

Second, except for his short time at Network the night we spoke, the Church was absent from his life. He didn't indicate how long he spent under the tutelage of the state and I didn't ask. But I wonder, if he had had a relationship with a church while he was behind bars, would he have found himself in the predicament he did a week ago? Perhaps he still would have found himself on the street. But with a community to turn to, maybe a lost backpack would not have been such a concern.

To visit the prisoner, the stranger, and the poor is called righteousness by Jesus. According to the author of Matthew, to fail to visit these is to invite eternal fire (Matthew 25:31-46). And yet, the church is largely absent from the people and places Jesus calls it to be.

Of course, some efforts to visit the poor do exist. Network Coffeehouse is one. United Methodist Committee on Relief works worldwide to ease the suffering of people experiencing disaster. Denver itself is host to several efforts by churches to feed the hungry and clothe those in need. But these groups serve to highlight the absence of individual Christians and organized ecclesial bodies in the public sphere, witnessing, encountering, and bearing up under suffering.

Where the Church is clearly called by Jesus Christ to be, there instead exists a sucking vacuum. Into this conspicuous absence the most vulnerable people in our society are pulled. There, they are preyed on by demonic forces: drug dealers and cartels pushing meth, crack, and heroine, sex traffickers enslaving adults and children alike, pay day loan organizations and their capricious usury, day labor centers doling out work without appropriate wages, jails that increasingly charge fees for the most basic amenities. And then there's my friend at Network who simply needs a pair of pants. Standing against this force we have burned-out case managers, parole officers, a few people compelled by religion to serve their neighbor, and the odd person here or there who cannot help but find themselves among the poor and suffering. It is not enough.

The bulk of the Church, the living body of Christ, Jesus' hands and feet supposedly animated by the Spirit of God? A barely audible whisper at best. Unaccounted for, unseen, and unheard. Absent.

Encountering Homelessness

Check out the rest of Logan's series on friendship.

Working at Network Coffeehouse, the goal is to be friendly. Christians being friendly; that’s what Network is. That’s what we do.

Sounds pretty simple, but oddly this makes answering questions about what you do a little challenging. The never-ending question that follows after I’ve explained this is, “Do you have success getting people off the street?” or “What do you do to help people get off the street?” or “How many people get off the street there?”

People want to hear about goals and a narrative of meeting those goals. Numbers tell a surface-level story that is easily accessed, digested, and understood.[^1] Goals and mission statements are a narrative about what an organization will do. It’s a pitch. We then act within that story to conform to the pre-constructed narrative.

But Network is about encounter. Narrative—our attempt to construct meaning—only occurs after encounter has already taken place.[^2] John Hicks, the guy who founded Network, says, “We are friends with real-life poor people.” Friendship takes encountering another person and opening yourself up enough to be encountered by someone else.

The second part, opening your heart to another, is the really hard part. Ryan Taylor, the co-director of Network, has been saying for a few months that a major part of coming to Network as staff or a volunteer is encountering the beggar within you. When you serve the poor, especially at a place like Network where the distracting varnish of goals and pre-set narrative is nonexistent, you will encounter parts of yourself you otherwise try to ignore: racism, prejudice, anger, sadness, loss, loneliness. Every shift I run at Network I meet myself at my very best and my most callous, passionless worst—sometimes in the exact same interaction.

In a nutshell, I found myself saying this at a professional networking event last night. Let me tell you, people looked at me like I was a crazy person. This, too, reveals our poverty. Our unwillingness or inability to encounter a person beyond a narrow narrative constrained by success and failure is a kind of societal violence we participate in without even thinking about it. We minimize each other and ourselves when we fail to encounter each other fully.

Pay attention. It’s the only currency that matters.

  • [^1]: Kierkegaard calls this “glittering externality.”
  • [^2]: Narrative often (always?) functions as a way to gain power over our experiences or the experiences and actions of others.