Embracing Raw Community
By Jeff Goins
September 28, 2011
“How do you process something like that?” Paul asked, not really wanting an answer. He didn’t get one.
I stared out the window, feeling helpless and unhelpful.
So many questions loomed in my mind. Like, what is love, and how do I show it to someone with a physical need I can’t meet? And what happens when I meet a physical need but no compassion is present?
Detached. That’s how I felt when I stared at a man with a broken, bleeding nose and he asked for help.
At first, I pretended I didn’t hear him. Then, I justified why it wasn't wise to help him. That’s not even why we came down here, I thought. I had done my good deed for the day.
We had been coming down here for months now. My friend Paul and I had discovered a homeless community living underneath the street, somewhat on accident. We had brought them Christmas presents and candy canes, broken bread with them and even become their friends.
And now this.
Paul and I met James that night no more than 30 minutes after he had his nose busted in a fight. Another man had head-butted him in the face. In his words, “That just ain’t right.” Apparently, even on the street, there are certain codes of conduct. Pools of blood served as signposts, marking where James had stumbled, clearly drunk.
The alcohol in his system made it difficult for the bleeding to stop—his blood was too thin, I guess. Occasionally, it would stop gushing, and then he would sneeze up a clot, spurting a crimson dye in all directions. It was disgusting.
We helped him get to the surface. (The community lived underneath the city, tucked back in a cave-like abode, safe from the city.) And we told him to stay put.
Fairly clueless about who to contact, we chose a direction in which to walk and went. We ran into Jimbo, whom we had met the other week and given him a pair of boots. He was wearing them now.
Jimbo explained he had open-heart surgery a while back, and his heart was acting up again. He could barely walk, and it was obvious he was more than just inebriated. He asked us to call 9-1-1. We told him to stay with James, and we quickened our steps.
But to what?
I had no idea where we were going or what we would do once we got there. I was scared and emotionally distancing myself from the situation. There was a coldness to my heart that was being shaken by this experience.
And I didn't like it.
We prayed loudly and desperately that God would show us the way. Our spoiled suburban mindsets were telling us not to go “too far” for a couple of "bums" who weren’t entitled to the benefits of the system. These were selfish, dark thoughts, I admit, but we thought them. At least, I know I did.We turned a corner and almost ran into a parked ambulance outside the fire department. We searched for an entrance but couldn’t find a way in.
I noticed a cop car parked on the side of the street up another block. We hurried that way but found no one.
Instead, we came upon a security officer, writing a ticket for an illegally parked vehicle. We told him the situation, and he gave us a phone number to call. Paul used his cell phone to dial the number, and we rushed back in the direction of our friends. My heart quickened.
I was starting to care.
We headed back, still on hold with the non-emergency number. By the time we connected, we could almost see the guys waiting for us where we told them to stay. To be honest, I was a little surprised they had listened. They must have really needed help.
During the time we were gone (probably close to 30 minutes), James had stopped bleeding and started again. He kept cussing and saying how he was going to kill the guy who did this to him. Jimbo kept going on about his new boots. Even under the circumstances, I had to smile.
Minutes later, a fire truck arrived. Somewhat skeptically, I was sure it was not for our friends. We hailed it down, and sure enough, they stopped and went to work. They loaded James onto a stretcher. He kept coughing and sneezing up blood while screaming obscenities. Every minute or so, a spray of red, runny liquid would erupt from his mouth and nose, landing on the naked concrete.
Frustrated, the paramedic told him sternly, “Don’t talk—I don’t want you to spit blood in my face.”
I understood the logic. These were general safety precautions; the medic faced life-and-death decisions every day. He had to look out for his own health. Right? Then, I noticed several people around James backing up. I was one of them. It seemed natural, like the right thing to do. Plus, everyone else was doing it.
We who were clean backed away from the dirty, coughing, bleeding man—all except one.
It was the woman who was with him when we found him under the street. She used her surprisingly clean, white sleeve to wipe away the blood from his face. She held his hand as the medics strapped him down and loaded him into the ambulance. Then, she asked if she could go with him.
Immediately, I was ashamed. Despite months of street ministry and relationships built, I realized something: I was still afraid of these people. Worse, I still thought I was better than them.
Every time I think I've got something figured out, Jesus shows up. And He did that night, in the guise of an old woman, missing some teeth and madly in love with a drunk, sneezing man who couldn't stop bleeding.
I have so much to learn from this Jesus.
Christ ministered to the poor by being poor. He loved the homeless by being homeless. Not by "getting on their level" or being "relevant." He shared life with those He wanted to reach. Not a mission trip or a weekend foray into downtown Nashville. Real, raw life. No escape hatch of contingency plan. That was how He did it.
All the while, we in America want to understand the secret to effective ministry. Yet, we are afraid of the cost. We are not wiling to step into the messiness of life and love those whom we're afraid of.
So what happens when the divide between rich and poor fall down? When the decent folks acknowledge their own indecencies?
What will we do then? Maybe we'll actually begin to care—to minister as we ought to have been doing all along.
Jeff Goins is a writer who lives in Nashville. Visit him at GoinsWriter.com.