In Part I of this post, I hinted (in bold print) at the notion of reconciliation. The focus of the post acknowledged the sins of the homeless and explained (in part) why I don’t often write about that stuff – but it all has an eye toward reconciliation. And that is a word I never hear brought up in homeless ministry.
“Reconciliation” is the term we Catholics have adopted in recent years when we refer to “confession”. Confession is the old terminology. But “reconciliation” points the way forward and offers a goal to the work of confessing. And this series of posts is rather confessional in nature for this blog, but with a goal of reconciling what is torn apart.
And what is torn apart, exactly?
(Glad you asked…)
The thing torn apart is humanity (or society if you like). Our humanity suffers when our fellow human beings aimlessly drift along the streets, alleys, and gutters of our community, for whatever reasons. And that torn humanity is reconciled when we see Jesus in the poor (Matthew 25) and treat them the way we would treat him.
I have been thinking and praying – thanking God – a lot about reconciliation lately. Before he died in the Spring of last year, my grandfather on my mother’s side requested that my dad come to his deathbed where after years of strife and estrangement, he asked my dad to forgive him. When he asked that, my dad in turn asked for his forgiveness too. And I watched a hatchet that was decades old (that had helped prompt divorces and all the tearing apart that can mean) get buried for eternity. It was a beautiful sight.
So, yeah, I have been giving a lot of thought to reconciliation. This very personal, family matter hits me close to home. Seeing my dad and grandfather reconcile brought healing to my heart and home and gives me dreams of hope where I imagine new possibilities.
I gave two examples of the kind of jerks the homeless can be in the first part. I want to revisit those examples now and help us imagine reconciliation.
In the first, I talked about those irresponsible drunks who present both a danger to others and a mess to land owners and public spaces. Between emergency responses and trash left behind, they leave the worst kind of mark where ever they go. Their bad behavior casts aspersions on everyone else too. Quite often these people don’t really mean to do harm (or at least they often regret it). Nevertheless, they wreak havoc as a lifestyle, and that is not easily changed.
Before I was kicked out of the Premier Homeless Church, I used to spend a lot of nights in the alley out back with several of my homeless friends. There were a couple of office complexes across the alley in close proximity, one of which belongs to a celebrated local attorney. Both office complexes had “No Trespassing” signs clearly marked on the properties, but the owners seemed to turn a blind eye to the homeless as long as they cleaned up and disappeared before business hours.
And then one day the word hit the streets that the attorney had called the cops on the homeless sleeping on his property. The reason, it was rumored, was that allegedly someone from our ranks had defecated on the front door step.
I had lots of friends of the more responsible persuasion who took it upon themselves to run around and clean up each morning, cleaning messes they themselves had not made, but doing so as a way to keep the peace. None of them would commit such an offense, and none of them dreamed that even the rowdier types among them would do it. You could not hardly commit a more offensive gesture against your host!
When I arrived at the Premier Homeless Church later that day, and the story came out for my consideration, I sat down and wrote the attorney a letter of apology. In that letter, I expressed sincere gratitude for him allowing us shelter near his building and then expressed my sorrow and regret that his charity had been met with such offense. I also made it clear that I understood his anger, that I was not asking him to reconsider his position at all, but merely wanted him to know that at least some among us were truly sorry for this breach of trust. Then I offered the letter to all my homeless friends to read it before I delivered it. And about a dozen of them (if memory serves me) signed it with me.
Then I hand-delivered it to the attorney. I told him I was a lay minister affiliated with the church across the alley from him and that I, along with a number of the homeless, wanted to personally apologize for the behavior of some among our ranks. Sure enough, the man was angry. He expressed a number of concerns he had with the church and with the homeless we ministered to there. Some of them struck me as legit, some as hyperbole. Still, I listened, apologized, and smiled. Before I left, the man thanked me and said no one from the church had ever apologized for these messes before.
Did that fix everything? Did it fix anything?
I think not. But since I did not continue a relationship with the man, I do not know. I kinda represented the executive pastor in an impromptu way that day, and it is possible that the attorney reached out to him after that without me knowing – and it is possible that my letter could have played a role in it. But that is shear speculation. Nevertheless, I do know this much: That man cannot ever honestly say that the homeless abused him and then did not apologize. And I know that had I not written the letter, no apology would have been made. AND I know that I both modeled this attempt at reconciliation and shared in it with several of my homeless friends! At least the seeds were planted!
And then there is that second example I gave where a handful of the homeless turned out to actually oppose a handful of street ministers confronting the big church downtown on their behalf. I am clear in my mind, that all we did was attend a worship service. We did not go there to disrupt it. Just participate. If there had been a disruption, it would not have been our party that did it, but those championing a bad policy. And even though that did not happen, there were a handful of homeless people who turned out to shout at us and claim we were there to divide the church!
A couple of those guys used to be friends of mine. I have not seen them since that day, but based on the shrill opposition they presented, I expect they are not friendly with me anymore. I always keep my eyes open for them, but well over a year his passed now, and I have not spoken to these guys since.
Nevertheless, they are on my routine prayer list. I pray for them, that God use them, and that God express himself through them as they bear his image in this community. I even pray for the church that kicked me out! Not that I endorse everything they do or say, but then I am in favor of a lot of what they do and say – that is why I joined them in the first place! But we are moving into multiple years now in which they have neither repented nor apologized to me – leaving me kicked out as an ongoing status. Thus, I pray. And it is reconciliation that I pray for.
Praying for reconciliation tests one’s patience. I am in this for the long haul, it seems. I am mindful that my grandfather did not seek reconciliation with my dad until he was nearing the end of his long life. My mother and grandmother had both died already by that time. There is a lot of healing that never had the chance to blossom. A lot of missed opportunities. It taught me patience – to risk reconciliation in the long haul.
And it’s not like my dad was in a position to dictate it – or really even request it. And while I sense that it was appropriate for my dad to ask forgiveness in return, I really think it was also appropriate that it begin with my grandfather! That was genuine and no denying it. There was a rightness about it unfolding the way it did as well as that it did. And that requires God’s timing and intervention. And that suggests we patiently pray.
Reconciliation – some closing thoughts:
Reconciliation. It is more than a letter of apology. It is more than praying and waiting. But these things are a start. And that is what we have to work with at the moment. But hopefully, we can begin to imagine a robust heavenly completion to it all. Hopefully it will be more than just acceptance of apology, but even more the establishment of trust and harmony.
What would it have looked like if the attorney and the homeless could have reconciled?
Well the homeless would have to have been more invested than merely signing a letter I had penned. Perhaps they could have offered to pay restitution. What would that look like coming from a bunch of bums? If they had raised money to give, surely any amount would be sacrificial. But what if they showed up at the attorney’s office with $100 or even $1000? What would that do to the attorney’s imagination if a group of homeless bums approached him to say they were sorry for the mess and offered him $1000?
Think of that a moment. The attorney drives a fine automobile, lives in a custom home in the plush part of town. He does not need a thousand dollars, but if some of the poorest people of this community gave him an apology and that kind of restitution, do you think he would look at them the same? Do you think he might feel awkward accepting that kind of money from those kinds of people? I am thinking he just might! And then he just might champion their cause!
And what could the attorney have done differently? Well, if he were a man of God, I am inclined to think he might try spending a night at the office on the sidewalk outside. He might not mention to the homeless there that he is the owner, just blend in and get to know folks. He might discover that at least some of them are dedicated to cleaning up the place in the morning, and he might reward their efforts with his favor. He might challenge the others to step up and be responsible too. He might even visit the church across the alley and get to know the pastor, maybe even offer legal services!
Where could reconciliation go from there? I am not sure, but I really think news of it would reach the highest of heavens. And that is worth our time to contemplate and try to imagine.