Wednesday, October 29, 2008


The week after my college graduation, I wrote a series of 13 meditations inspired by incidents from my time with the homeless during my last year at the university. I wanted to write it quickly, before my fresh, 22-year-old perspective became more balanced with time and cynicism. (Most of you who know me have read it; if anyone else would like a copy, I could email one.)

As almost a necessity to even enter the experience, I had closed my ears to certain warnings involving my safety and potential uses of any money I might hand out. The experience had its blessings and its frustrations, one of the former being the chance to enter into the lives of people I still keep in touch with, and I never actually regretted ignoring the better judgment of others.

But last week as I sat in the group mentioned in the previous post and the topic of the homeless came up, I heard some of those same warnings I had closed my ears to years before. Three years later, the accusations of drug-addiction feel different to me, and I decided to write an epilogue to my story.

For those of you who didn’t read the story itself, there were three significant characters:
  • Lawrence – a man I brought to church and to whom I gave the raincoat off my back a few days before leaving for the summer after my junior year of college, and came back to find him clean and off the streets.
  • Barbara – a girl my age with a new story of (expensive) tragedies every day, who asked me to teach her to read during my last week before finals and stood me up every day.
  • Benedict – a man who struggled to maintain his dignity, who allowed me to give him friendship but little else, whose only begging was begging the shops for work.

A Lesson in Drugs
As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naive and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.
-Fyodor Dostoyevsky
In theory, I believe in a God of perfect wisdom and perfect compassion. As a young, idealistic student I became enraged at the fallacy of those who argue against compassion on the basis of wisdom. Perhaps my indignation was justified, though one way or another I knew in the back of my mind that I was committing a fallacy of my own. Their wisdom may have been no less genuine than my compassion, and my disregard of it may have been no less errant as a disregard of the other. My decision of which side I would rather err on may have been the best decision I could muster, but it was no less a decision to err.


Soon after I graduated, Benedict ended up in jail for an armed robbery he did not commit. There was no evidence to convict him, other than his meeting the description of a “scruffy-looking black man” on a dark street that night. His state-appointed attorney assured him that no jury would believe his innocence despite the lack of the alleged gun, especially because (as I learned from Barbara) he already had quite a number of drug charges on his record. Benedict took his advice and pleaded guilty.

When he left prison seven months later with a felony on his record, he asked to be put in a halfway-house, that it be in another part of the state, and that it be Christian. When he was settled into a small rural town working as a day-laborer, he took out the scrap of paper he had kept in his wallet during his time in prison and called me. I received the call on my break while I worked as a coffee-shop barista, and I wept to hear his voice again.

Two years later, Benedict has a full-time job with benefits and is reconciled with his family. His mother and brother have come down South to share the lease with him, and they are working together in hopes of eventually buying a home. I visit them often.

In one of my visits he made vague references to things in his past that he chooses not to tell people, and I decided to go out on a limb.

“Benedict,” I said earnestly, already guessing what some of them were from allusions Barbara made about him, “I hope you know that I would still be your friend even if I knew those things.”

Benedict emphatically declared that he did, that he knew beyond any doubt that I had shown him unconditional love that would not be daunted by his mistakes. I was satisfied, and did not press him for details.


In the second year after graduation, I was walking down Franklin Street and heard a woman scream my name. I had not recognized Barbara. Between the haircut, make-up, clean clothes, and 30 extra pounds, she looked like nothing like the girl I had known.

“I need to talk to you!” she dramatically pleaded like she had so many times years before.

But this time it was not a dramatic story about an expensive tragedy. “I need to come clean with you about all the ways I lied to you.” She proceeded with the details of her crack addiction (I remembered her blood-shot eyes), her time in rehab, and her current attempt to build up an honorable life. “I know there is no reason for you to forgive me,” she continued, “but I thought you should at least know the truth.”

I found myself less surprised than confused. There was one part of her story I did not understand, as I remembered feeling as though my grades were being sabotaged at the end of my time in college. “Why did you ask me to teach you to read? It was the end of the year; I had already been giving you money for a long time. You weren’t getting anything out of the deal to have me waiting for you every morning for two weeks. Why would you do that to me?”

She looked as if she were prepared for the question. “There’s no good reason. Honestly, it was just a game. We all played it. I once got a group of people to drive me all around town believing I was blind. You have every right to hate me. I’m not even asking you not to; you just deserve to know.”

I was less convinced than ever of whether or not I had fought the battle in the right way; I was more convinced than ever that I had been fighting the right battle.

“I’m doing better now,” she went on. “I’ve been off crack for four months. They told me that if I left rehab as early as I did I’d be back on in a week, but I’m still off. They told me that if I went back to my old friends I’d be back on in a day, but there’re the only friends I have. Sometimes they offer it, and I just tell them no. I don’t think I’ll have any problem staying off at this point.”

I was not feeling as optimistic as Barbara. But wherever she was on the journey of sanctification, there was at least evidence that she was on it. I did not know if I had played any major part of that journey, but I was glad for the privilege to have witnessed it.


A few weeks later I was walking down Franklin Street again and made eye contact with a man sitting against a building with a beat-up cardboard box of change.

“No!” I nearly screamed when I recognized him, freezing in horrified disbelief.

Lawrence seemed as startled to see me as I was to see him. “I just ran into some hard times,” he explained. “Give me two weeks and I’ll have a place to stay again. Don’t worry.”

“No…” I continued, tears forming to see my early story of hope so quickly evaporated. “Lawrence… no!”

Lawrence looked like a big brother trying to console his little sister. Our roles were reversed; I no longer had any gospel to present to him, but entreated him for the hope of the Gospel that seemed to slip through the holes in his cardboard box.

“It’s not so bad,” he tried to insist. “I’ve gotten off the streets before; I can do it again. Two weeks; I promise!”

It was a hard day for me. I called Benedict’s cell phone that night for consolation. He was in the process of taking his collard greens off the stove and getting ready for dinner.


Timothy said...

EMILY!! This is amazing! I clicked on the link to Benedict's story also and have posted that to my site just now .
Is that OK? :) I've also linked to you. :) Is that OK? MMMmmmmm! I really appreciate God giving you gifts for honesty and writing. hallelujah! Thank you so much!


Timothy said...

One more question! Why do you say a number of times that it was a decision to "err" - what have you concluded - if anything - was your err? Interested!


Em the luddite said...

I felt like I was pitted against two bad choices: I could go about my life indifferent to the poor around me (err against compassion), or I could give money that would enable drugs and harmful lifestyles (err against wisdom). I chose the latter. The point in the epilogue is that it was a decision to err (even if I don't regret it), and it is very likely that all three characters in the story were using money for drugs. The arguments against giving to homeless people were concerned with real, valid concerns.

My conclusions when wrote this (and still) are not practical; I don't know what the "right" thing to do is or would have been. All I knew was that I was fighting the right battle, though I did give money to drug addicts. I don't regret the choices, but they did carry real consequences.