By the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
This morning, I said goodbye to a friend. In the early morning hours before sunup, while most of Gainesville was still without power, my husband drove him to the Atlanta airport and waited with him until one of the airport chaplains could meet them.
The chaplain then escorted my friend through security, helped him with the plane train and remained with him at his gate until he saw him safely boarded. Although my friend has lived half a century, this was his first time inside an airport and aboard a plane.
For almost 30 years of his 50-year life, my friend has been in prison for a variety of reasons. But for the past three years, he has lived here in Gainesville and worked for us at the church. He came here from Sacramento to be present to help his only relative, a brother, who was due to come out of prison. He said he wanted to help his brother because so many people had helped him when he got out.
But after three years of trying to help his brother get on his feet, my friend decided he had done all he could do and now it was time for him to go back to California, where he hoped to continue his work as a sometimes-laborer at the Episcopal Cathedral there.
Everyone here who has known him has acknowledged that there has never been a harder worker or a more honest one. He is always deeply grateful for any opportunity to work. Not once did he ever ask for anything that he was not willing to repay.
He told me this morning that he had spent his last night in his trailer admiring the Christmas lights that he never took down once he’d put them up, sitting in his recliner — his first purchase upon moving from living on the streets to living indoors.
“I was just so thankful for all that I’d managed to get and also sad to leave it all behind,” he said. “I sure learned one thing: If you stay around nice people, you act nicer. Living on the streets just makes a man hard-hearted.”
St. Paul told the Philippians, “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”
Before I met my friend, I’d have thought that Paul was indicating that he’d learned to be perfectly satisfied whether he was hungry or full. I’m not so sure now that the “lessons” to be learned are that, with Christ’s help, these disparate conditions bring equal peace. It seems clear to me now that, with Christ’s help, one can endure being hungry or homeless, but year after year of that life takes its toll.
I’d say my friend has learned the lessons of going hungry and of being in need. He may not realize the lessons that I learned from him in the three years he lived here.
I learned that our system of caring for the poor has too many cracks in it. Anyone from any of the social service agencies will attest to this reality. I’m just adding my personal “Amen!” to their outcry.
The various iterations of what “poor” looks like are myriad. My friend is caught in a cycle of poverty that works like an anchor tied to his leg. No matter how hard he is willing to work or how meticulously he follows all the rules, the deck is always stacked against him.
Sure, he is personally liable for a good part of that inequity. He would be the first to admit it. Although he never said so, I can’t help but wonder if he had had a teacher who took an interest, a present parent or someone who noticed him as a young child struggling, he would have made different choices.
Despite calling in favors left and right, and the generous responses from several trusting individuals in our community who were willing to give him a chance, after three years he managed little more than coming in off the streets and being able to eat food prepared in a kitchen, not scavenged from a dumpster. Although he was out of prison and off parole, his record haunted him at every turn. Years of hard living showed, and his face never rested entirely. He was always poised to fight or run.
Just before the storm, I sat with my colleague Stuart Higginbotham at the United Way kickoff. Earlier, we had met with the new director of Gainesville Action Ministries. We came away from both of those meetings wondering about whether there are strategic changes we can make to our ministries of compassion that can have a greater impact in one or more of these gaps in our society. We are blessed to have ministry partners here in town and my prayer is that we will not grow weary in being imaginative and bold in our collective initiatives.
And I give thanks to God for the providence that brought this man into my life, keeping his story close, current and real. I admit that there were times when helping him felt good. But he was too present for me to ever forget that his is a chronic condition, and my occasional crisis responses did little more than kick the can down the road a few days.
I believe that the Gospel compels a compassionate response from me that can help in both critical and chronic situations. I’ve learned that working together with partners, such as Gainesville United Against Poverty among others, is not just the best chance I have at addressing both, but it recognizes that the body of Christ is made of many parts.
My prayer is that the lessons I learned from my friend will be the charter for the next season in my ministry.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park is the associate rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville. She can be reached at email@example.com.