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Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Little Window Into a Bigger Picture: Northampton Street Life.

As it often happens on the street, the incident unfolded quickly and ended almost as quickly - a wisp of life amidst the homeless and the addicted.

Steve is an alcoholic veteran with a serious back problem and a gentle soul. He mans his position just a few paces up from us on Main Street. There, he often stands all day long and into the night with his walking stick, cardboard sign, and assorted milk cartons waiting for kind strangers to drop a few dollars (more often coins), into his coffee can.  He is neither aggressive nor belligerent. He merely asks and waits. Every few days he will use his "earnings" to get lit up. Other times, he'll get something to eat or use it for some other need.

I've been talking to Steve for a year or so and have a soft spot in my heart for him. He's not a bad man. He'll call himself a "screw-up" hanging low his head when he does. I see the face of Jesus.

So Matt, Karen, Tricia and I were heading home from a lovely evening of catching up over dinner together last Tuesday night. We were standing in front of our building saying good-byes when a commotion caught our attention. I turned to my left and saw Steve chasing (in his back-injury, hobbling sort of way), and yelling at three guys walking toward us. At first, I couldn't tell what the issue was, but Steve was yelling, and it was obvious from his agitation, they had done something to him.

I'd seen these guys before. Two of them are serious alcoholics and often cause trouble when they're lit up. One of them has been here for a while, the other for a few days. The third guy hangs with them, but is a more quiet drunk.

As they got closer to us, Steve confronted them and watrying to recover what one of them was holding. I saw it was the American flag he puts in a milk crate to signify he's a Vet. Steve caught up to them, yelling to beat the band (filling the air with obscenities) and demanding his property. He was able to snatch it back while his outrage smoldered. He wasn't going to let this guy take from him a piece of his identity. As the trio walked past us with Steve trailing behind, the thief was smirking. They rounded the corner and Steve, stopped just to our right and screamed something about they were messing with the wrong guy. He was still livid.

As he turned back and saw us. He recognized our faces softened, and apologized for his language. I asked him what had happened and he told me one of the guys took the flag and wouldn't give it back unless he coughed up five dollars. He wasn't going to have any of it and the brief altercation ensued.

We told him his response was understandable given the attempted  theft and bullying. We affirmed his right to protect his property and defend himself. A few minutes later as Matt and Karen were walking home, we stopped by his "spot" to make sure he was OK. He'd calmed down, verbally rattled his sabre a bit, and seemed genuinely grateful for our concern and affirmation.

I point out the incident because it's a pericope (lit. a piece cut out from) of what people living on the streets in Northampton experience regularly. The streets are mean, and when you mix drugs or alcohol with the human lust for dominance, it can be viciously ugly and sometimes tragic. These guys push each other around. They are always probing for weakness, and looking to steal from one another. The strong exploit the weak with relish.

On the other hand, the incident we witnessed reminded me of the winsome beauty Christ-following community can reflect to a world riddled with meanness and inhumanity. Our response to Steve's personhood calmed him down. We affirmed his value by supporting his right to defend himself and protect the little he has. We gently spoke life into the senseless chaos that erupted around him.

Granted no one died or even was hurt (at least physically), but the pain and outrage in him was palpable. It threatened to remind him once again that he doesn't matter, no one cares and he doesn't really exist.

Jesus had us there at that moment to tell him just the opposite. I'm grateful for that.
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