Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Flip Side of Central Square

Last weekend, as I always do on the third Saturday of every month, I participated in our church's Outdoor Ministry with homeless residents of Harvard and Central Squares in Cambridge. A team from our church gathers each month to make and distribute sandwiches, juice/ water, and brownies to those among us who are living on the street. This ministry began when one of our seminary students realized that the homeless in Cambridge were fed Sunday through Friday, but not on Saturday. We endeavor to make sure folks have something to eat on Saturday.

I have been a part of the sandwich ministry for almost a year, but this is the first time I brought my husband along. He is a paramedic in the Boston area, so he sees homeless people in the hospitals and picks them up in his truck. His perspective on homelessness is much different than most other people as a result. My spiritual "mom," Margie, was with us too, and it was her first time distributing sandwiches. Generally, we try to visit briefly with each person. We ask how they are, if they are keeping warm, and whether they have a place to stay that night. We also remind them that the Outdoor Church will be taking place the following day.

Last month, I was really challenged by a guy named Tommy. He was disabled and very cold when I met him. While my usual partner, Lane, chatted with his friends, Paul and Emily, I went to buy him a small coffee to help him warm up. When I returned, Tommy declared he didn't want any coffee, but asked if I had any alcohol. I was taken aback. "Who asks a Methodist for alcohol?" I asked my husband later, adding, "If I was a nun, he wouldn't have asked me for alcohol!"

This time, Tommy greeted us right away. We asked how he was and whether he wanted any food. He refused food, just like last month, but pulled out his bottle of cheap vodka. I asked if he was finding a place to stay lately, since he is disabled and I was concerned whether he would be able to get to a local shelter. He told us that he had just come from the Boston Medical Center (though his perception of time may have been dubious), where doctors had again confirmed his diagnosis with lung cancer. He said that they wanted to take out his whole lung, but he didn't want to attempt that kind of intense procedure. Stephen agreed that recovery from surgery like that is very difficult. He said that he felt he deserved it because he had smoked for decades. Then he said something that made me really think: he wants to die on the street. Tommy said he preferred to drink himself to death and die while passed out or sleeping than to die from cancer while lucid. I thought about how painful it is to die of cancer, and can't say I blame him.

Still, it was an unexpectedly candid moment on the street. Not everyone will talk to relative strangers about their own death. It was a picture of what end-of-life decisions look like when a person hits rock bottom. It was also a reminder that chronically homeless people are so alienated from society, they feel more at home on the street than they do in society's institutions like hospital.

The Church is another one of society's institutions, though it is Christ's body at the same time. Housed people who go to church are so far removed from the trauma of everyday life on the street that they can have a difficult time relating with homeless neighbors. And homeless neighbors often feel uncomfortable in a building like a church, which is why churches like the Outdoor Church exist. Reaching out across the housed/unhoused divide can be daunting.

Yet we are called, in our hesitance and trepidation, to reach out anyway.

Central Square is known for its addicted homeless population, partly because there is a shelter that focuses on addiction in the neighborhood. It's easy to walk by my neighbors on the street every day without giving them a second look. In my mind, Tommy transformed from "addict" to "person" that day. My conversation with him reminds me that all the homeless people in my neighborhood are people just like me. Reaching out, even once a month, definitely takes me out of my comfort zone. I do it anyway, though, and when I do, I am confronted with a glimpse of God's Kingdom that I didn't expect.

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