Elegy to a Stranger Who They Say is Dead

I am ashamed to say that almost every morning, I drive by a man who sleeps under a bridge. I first saw him sometime in November of last year; he was sitting and reading the paper, his warm breath pirouetting in the early morning air. I passed that man on some agonizingly cold mornings, wondering what kind of evil is this that emboldens hundreds – including me – to pass by this man on countless mornings with the same willful resolve to ignore his life? By what arrogant authority do I – we – get to choose to pass him by as if he is not a living and breathing being, with a heart and soul that holds a mirror up to my indifference, reflecting the very worst in me?

Yet, it is a mirror that I cannot turn away from – I am compelled to face it and so I look for him every morning that I pass by. A couple of months ago, I was horrified to see that someone had graffitied the word DEAD under the ledge where he sleeps – I am not sure if he is aware of the painted declaration upon his life, or if he would even care. He likely already knows what I have come to realize; that is, we all effectively agree to the pronouncement as we tough it out on our morning commute. Insofar as I do not care enough to wonder, ask, seek to know and work against the causes of evil in this world, my silence affirms as much. Yes, I know what some will say, perhaps he chooses his lifestyle. If only I’d just ask him, I could confirm that and avoid my nagging conscience; certainly, I can rest a little now because the warmer weather means he is not in danger of suffering from hypothermia. Alas, I have found reason upon reason not to disturb him on his ledge above the creek; since I first glimpsed his wearied body on that cold November morning, weeks have turned into months and I do not yet even know his name.

            So, church, what kind of Christian am I? I am one who needs to be asked what I have done to love my neighbor. I am one who needs to be confronted about why I have driven by that man on countless days and never ventured to ask his name or what his story is. I am one who must be pressed to step outside of my comfort zone, a place where I can never know what it means to practice radical love because I am not asked to go beyond what is convenient. It is not hard to love those who love me in return. To love those who are dead, in any number of ways, to the world – that is what Jesus asks of me. I cannot help but wonder how many times I’ve ignored Christ in the face of those behind cardboard signs or in the bodies of those who sleep under bridges; I can guess that it is God who holds up the mirror that I am compelled to face.

Friends, I am one who professes Christ imperfectly and it is only in community that I am held accountable to be who it is that I say I am; indeed, who it is that I want to be. I would ask that you gently help awaken me from my slumber of acquiescence to the ways of the world that we are called to be in, but not of. Help me to be free of the justifications I offer and the reasoning I use to avoid loving my neighbor because it is just asking too much, and God knows how much I have to do today. But what do I mean, exactly, by asking you to help me in this? I am asking that you encourage me to serve and love my neighbors near and far, not because it makes me feel accomplished and gratified with how much I can offer the world, but because I believe that it is only in loving service to others that we are true to the Spirit of being in the world as the body of Christ. I am asking that you remind me of who I am before God – an imperfect person who needs a community who will ask me what I have done lately to love my neighbor. I invite you to join me in exploring what it means to lovingly hold each other accountable to be who it is that we say we are: servants of Christ in a world that remains hauntingly hushed in the face of those who society deems DEAD.

***I now volunteer with a local organization that has an outreach team that routinely checks on unhoused residents of D.C., including the gentleman I write about here. I encourage you to read about homelessness in Fairfax County and get involved in direct service efforts, outreach, and/or advocacy. I would also be grateful to hear stories about how you are already involved in those efforts. Some local organizations that work in this area can be found here. Thank you for reading. ***