May 11, 2008

The Homeless Man in Church

Filed under: Church — Bob Gifford @ 1:14 pm

My church now has our second homeless person attending regularly on Sundays.

The first one was Marshall, who has been attending for three or four years. I first noticed Marshall when he interrupted Pastor Tony’s sermon shouting Bible verses at him. Since then, we make sure he is on his meds, provide him with food, and in general watch out for him and his shopping cart full of worldly belongings. (We’ve tried to get him into some housing, but Marshall won’t have it — he insists on staying on the street.) Marshall attends the early service, so I don’t see him much, at least not in church, although I occasionally see him around on the streets.

Today I sat behind another homeless guy who has been attending the late service for a while (I’m ashamed to say I don’t know his name). He must have some neurological disorder, because he seems to struggle sometimes with motor control, and occasionally lets out involuntary vocalizations, although nothing disruptive. He is clearly there for the same reason the rest of us are — worship.

This morning I was monitoring my emotional reactions to his presence. On the one hand, I was glad he was there. He needs and deserves God’s grace as much as any of us, which is to say very much and not at all. I’m glad he feels comfortable and welcomed in our church, and I did my best to make him feel at home. At the same time, deep down in the less gracious parts of my brain, I kept worrying that he would do something inappropriate, cause a scene, start ranting or something that would be, heaven forbid, embarrassing. As our history with Marshall has shown, this isn’t necessarily an unfounded fear.

But as Marshall has also taught us, having an outcast cause a scene in church is not such a bad thing. It tears down the carefully maintained facade that we’re all somehow in-control, healthy, self-actualized, serenely enlightened Christians. Such a scene is embarrassing not for the scene-maker, who is beyond embarrassment, but for us observers. It reveals that our nice clothes, good educations, well-produced liturgy and nicely appointed church doesn’t change the fact that we are all more like our homeless parishioner than not. If not for the vain desire we all have to appear calmly, rationally sane, we’d all be ranting at the cross on occasion, demanding that God explain how we are to survive in a world with death, divorce, disease and depression*. We have no grounds to pretend that everything’s cool, we’re happy and life is great, at least not all the time, but we do anyway. We could use a good scene every once in awhile just to rip away this conspiracy of self-deception.

Other than standing and sitting throughout the service on a 60-second delay behind the rest of us, our homeless parishioner did nothing untoward. He partook of communion just like the rest of us, not because we deserve it but because we need it. And none of us were embarrassed by his behavior. But having him there was a blessing, hopefully for him, but more so for me. Our Pastor and others in the church are speaking to him and seeing to his needs. But he has blessed me, just by being there, by acting as a mirror to show me my own vanity. He made me realize, again, that church isn’t about being respectable, well-groomed or placidly serene. Church is there to throw us a line as we thrash about trying to keep our heads above water in this sea of troubles, and we’re there to grab the line, not pretend that we’re doing just fine treading water.

We aren’t so different, the homeless man and me, except that he knows he needs God and I keep pretending that God needs me.

Which of us should be embarrassed?

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* Forgive the alliteration — it was initially unintended, but after realizing what I had done I didn’t have the heart to find some less-good synonyms to remove it.

1 Comment

  1. Why apologize for alliteration? It is one of the best, brightest, bounciest, and beautifulest linguistic techniques since onomatopoeia! Badda bing, badda boom!

    Comment by Fred Woolsey — May 12, 2008 @ 6:29 pm

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