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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Running Into Raymond.

I've seen him before on the streets of Northampton, mostly in the evening. When I do, he's generally "half-cocked" as he calls his drunkenness. He's short in stature, extroverted and a bit ornery. His name is Raymond. He says he's a roofer who's been in these parts since the "70's. He says he's a Vietnam vet as well. Raymond usually has much to say.

Tuesday night, Jim LaMontagne and I were returning from the Neilson Library on the Smith College campus where we'd just listened to a lecture on Jonathan Edwards by a historian named Ronald Story. He'd written a book called Jonathan Edwards and the Gospel of Love, and we wanted to hear what he had to say given the reality of the impact Edwards had on the American Christian ethos in the mid-18th century. It was no small thing that he was a pastor in Northampton for a number of years as well.

We'd just returned and were chatting in front of the doorway into our building when Raymond came across the street and headed right for us. He started talking in our direction before we realized he had us in his sights. For the next 20 minutes or so, he regaled us with everything from a false bomb scare happening a few minutes ago up the street, to Revolutionary and Civil War history, to asparagus and grass fields on Rte.9 back in the day. We functioned as an audience for him. He peppered his discourse liberally with f-bombs (sometimes like a cascade), and other assorted expletives. Occasionally, he'd ask about us, but our answers just served as launching pads for his next observation.

Raymond is an alcoholic and more than likely has been one for decades. I never see him when he's not lit up.
He has the gift of gab when he's that way, but I wonder what he's like when he's sober. Is he quiet, shy, easy-going, or detached? I have no way of knowing so far.

That's the problem with alcoholics or drug addicts actively using; you can never peer into who they really are. Getting drugs, using drugs and coming down from using drugs take center stage in their lives. They are high or trying to get high. Trying to have an actual conversation with them or get to know them beyond the surface has proven very tough so far. It's frustrating, because it's not of any substance in the sense the person you're interacting with is distorted by the madness of the addiction. You might get glimmers into them, but nothing to hold onto.

The drug effects are always the "third person" in the conversation. Who knows what's real?

I feel sad in a way because I know there is a someone looking back at or talking to me, but I can't get to know him or her. I want to find out who the real person is and hear his story. I want to offer Christ and the love he holds out to them. I want to say, "Let's figure out how you can work to overcome the past, get back on your feet, and show the world what you might be made of." If I can't get there, they remain a kind of burlesquish caricature to me -- by that I mean a distorted parody of who they might be underneath. What a travesty because this same person bears the image of God. I don't like such diminishing of any human being.

Remember, I'm referring to people who've been this way for years. They've lived on the streets, moved in and out of prison, lost jobs, spouses, families and friends; they've hurt those who've loved them, thus eventually consigning themselves to an aimless, disconnected slavery. Many have been to counseling, been in rehab and attended many AA meetings, even worked the 12-Steps. But, using and trying to stop using has become a Sisyphean struggle of sorts for folks at it for decades: 2 steps forward, 3 steps back, and on and on.

After a while, I've found myself avoiding them, feeling it a waste of time to interact to any degree. I'll give them a buck or two occasionally, but that feels foolish, or acquiescing to the addiction thus cooperating with their demise. At the same time, to ignore them is to ignore our common humanity. I turn a blind eye to their suffering. I join all the others who do so without giving it a thought. That's not OK.

Perhaps, as we heard in the Edward's lecture Tuesday night, I must not cooperate with besmirching their dignity in any way. If they're doing so to themselves, that's they're choice. The reality I have to keep always before me is in serving them, I serve Christ, even if they're irresponsible, belligerent or manipulative. My job as a follower of Jesus is to give to the poor, including the addicted poor-in-spirit. I am to treat them as I would want to be treated if I were them. I am my brother's keeper and must not pick and choose their pedigree in that regard. But for the grace of God I am them.

In reality, I'm not sure the frustration and helplessness I feel will go away easily or like a vapor, but I've made a willing adjustment to engage and give to my street brethren. Giving to Christ can become my joy if I let it.

We'll see how it goes. If you think of it, pray for my freedom and generosity of spirit with these folks. I always appreciate prayer for me. I chronically need grace both amazing and abundant.

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