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Posted: December 11, 2010 in close
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Picasso’s Guernica reveals the senseless destruction of an unsuspecting and defenseless city bombed  in Spain on April 26, 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.  The painting is 11 by 25 feet of violence, suffering, pain and protest.  Picasso’s outrage is big, brilliant and eloquent.  Powerful forces  tear the world apart.

The Black Death, peaking between 1348 and 1350,  is estimated to have killed 30% – 60% of Europe’s population. It  reduced the world’s population from an estimated 450 million to between 350 and 375 million. It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover. Stunning! Catastrophic! What a huge number of lives, an incredible number of families  were affected.

Epidemics, plagues, famines, wars — they have shaped history, determined the length of  lives, brought huge amounts of pain and grief into our world.

A volcano  erupted in Tambora, Indonesia in 1815. It is estimated to have killed about 92,000 people. It cooled the world climate for more than  a year.  Bam, different, with one fiery belch of the earth — death, and cold, everywhere.

It is estimated that in World War II, from 50 to 70  million people were killed.  In the gigantic epidemics and wars, estimates are inaccurated by the millions.  Unthinkable — millions of individual lives, with names, ages and unique personalities lost and lumped into to a horrific number.  This is unacceptable!  But it happened, and not long ago. By the end of the war Europe had more than 4o million refugees.  How devastating to so many families. The memory of this is still with us.  I spoke to a friend this week who grew up in Ireland during the war. She remembers hearing the planes going over; she remembers the bombing of England, her blacked-out city, the news of devastation. She moved to London when the war ended to work as a nurse in a hospital.  

It hasn’t stopped — huge,  uncontrollable and unpredictable forces churn through lives. The Oslo Conference of 2010 reports that over 230 million people across the globe are now unemployed, an increase of 30 million since 2007 as a result of the current economic recession.  Not enough work, not enough food, fear, anger, hopelessness, depression — a huge blow to the world’s psyche, a devastation of confidence, a  tragic loss of  basic essentials for many. Hearts ache over the ache of the earth.

And all this is close, not far from us each of us, not far from me. People are caught in the blustering wind of economics, of political decisions, in the icy storms created by their own foolish decisions and they suffer terribly. 

 I live in a nice master-planned community, but I work where homeless people live. They camp in the weedy area down behind Target, also down by the flood control channel that goes along the 54, and I am told, down by the San Diego Bay in the undeveloped area at the foot of E Street.

These areas are trashy, weedy, hidden from the public view, unused tracks of land at the edges of businesses, freeways, water. Cities have often been established by water, homeless encampments too.

I meet these people who live on the edges, and I talk to them and try to listen.

A while back, I met Thomas; he was sitting on the steps at the church. From a distance – he was scruffy cool, in jeans and a t-shirt. Up close –  he was denim and cotton and psyche beat to pieces. He was with his new friend Robert who had been living on the street for a long time. As we talked Robert drifted off.

Thomas’s story came out in oddly connected pieces. He was sleeping behind the grocery store on E Street and showering at his girlfriend’s house. Her mom wouldn’t let him sleep at the house. He was recently out of prison, and he needed  money to attend a program that helps ex-cons get a job. Sometime back he had been diagnosed by doctors as bipolar, but he was smoking pot regularly. He had been smoking it pretty much nonstop since he was thirteen. He said it like someone saying, “I’ve pretty much been eating vegetarian food since I was thirteen.”

He told me his mom wanted him to come home so she could take him to a doctor for prescription medication. She would pay for the flight, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to do that. He didn’t think he would like the side effects of medication.

Then he blurted out something I didn’t see coming. Neither had he. A few years ago, he told me, looking down at his shoes, “I was driving a car, and there was an accident. My brother was killed.”

I heard him say that, and then we were in one of those moments when it doesn’t seem possible to say anything  remotely appropriate. I have a brother. We talk on the phone. My brother is part of my sense of connectedness to something like me, but bigger than me, my parents and my other brother and their kids and our sense of family that we go through life with.  “How does one speak about …”

I looked at the deep lines of anguish twisted across his cheeks. I’ve never seen so much pain compressed so deeply into one human being. The force of it almost drowned both of us on the spot. But at the same time, in that raw, open moment there was this – brutal, honest connection between us. The  space between us felt insanely holy. I was staring at him, and he was looking down at the steps and crying and saying, “After my brother died, I kind of went crazy. “  I got it, a little, as in waves.  I hated that this had happened to him.

Thomas kept talking. When he woke up, in the mornings, lying behind a dumpster, he didn’t want to be alive. But he didn’t want to kill himself; he just didn’t want to be here. It was good to be out of prison. He had a girlfriend, and he desperately didn’t want to disappoint her, but if things kept going like this she might get tired of him. He wanted so badly to get it together for her, and them. He had just applied for a cooking job, but he didn’t get the job. He told me, “It’s hard to get a job when you don’t have your own phone number. People expect to have a place to reach you.” He wanted to get a cell phone.  

 Then he told me that he had recently had an interview at a restaurant. He thought he had done well, and he said he knew he had the credentials. He heard nothing back for weeks at the phone at his girl friend’s house for weeks.

He went down to the restaurant and found one of the supervisors and  asked if he knew anything about why he didn’t get the job. All the supervisor would say was that he heard that the boss who interviewed Thomas had said, “He wouldn’t look me in the eyes.”  

I wanted to fix Thomas, right there, but I knew I couldn’t.  He looked up from the steps at me; I looked at him. The moment felt like an invocation. I prayed for him. I encouraged him to go home.  I haven’t seen him since then. I hope he went home.

A month or so later I ran into Robert downtown. He was zombie-like drunk. We talked. He was a bit embarrassed to be as he was. We talked about changing, but there was something helpless in how he presented himself. A few weeks later I heard that he had died in a nearby park, but that wasn’t the case. He was found in the park and died in the hospital – alone.  

I eat my lunch today. I cut up the fresh red tomatoes, the bright green cilantro, the orange peppers, dark romaine. I cook a crispy brown turkey burger and put the vegetables beside it on a white plate.  I blend a shake from strawberries, blue berries, soy milk and Splenda. I pour it into a clear glass. It is purple, with dark flecks of blue in it. I’m starving.  I’m taking care of myself. But I’m thinking about Thomas. I wonder where he is. One loses track of such new friends so easily.

I think of him sometimes when I feel afraid and uncertain what to do next. There is something in him that is a copy of something in me, a profound need to be connected to family, to someone to love. I think of Thomas when I meet other people who are living on the street. My street friends are beginning to collect in my thoughts. Now there is Carla.

I first heard about her on the phone. I had never met her, but I knew her. It’s possible, to know someone without having met them. I’ve been listening to her, through other people.  

Pat,  a substitute teacher, called me about Carla. She met Carla while giving out food to people here in town.  Pat told me that Carla had left her apartment because her boyfriend was abusing her, and that Carla was living on the street.  She called to ask me what she should do for Carla. On the phone, tired and kind of empty myself, I didn’t really know what to say.

Several days later, Carla surfaced again, though my wife.  My wife met Carla through our friend and  told me that she offered to take Carla to a battered women’s shelter. Carla refused. She said, “The shelter won’t take my dog, and I’m not leaving my dog.” My wife and I talked about it. We understood, but we didn’t. Maybe the dog was Carla’s safest relationship, but Carla herself needed to be safe. My wife called the shelter to see what they had to say about the dog.  They had seen this before and had a tougher point of view: The dog might be an excuse to avoid getting help.

We gave Carla more food, and she was down to the weedy area by the bay to find her own form of refuge. We thought of her as we went to bed that night, wondering aloud to each other if she was safe. We almost went down to look for her. We didn’t.

I don’t know what to do for Carla. She hovers in the back of my mind like a shadowy part of me that I want to bring closer. She is trying to protect herself.  I know what that feels like; I know that sometimes as you try to protect yourself, other people have no mercy and they attack you harder. I’ve been witness to that.

A few weeks ago George came to the door of my office.  He needed food. I gave him some. He is newly homeless. He has been living in a home with an older lady the last 16 years, but she just kicked him out. She found him smoking pot. He defended himself saying that he didn’t drink and only smoked a little to calm himself down.

He was anxious, disturbed. He explained that he was not used to sleeping behind a shed on Third Avenue  and eating hot dogs from 7-11. But he said he wasn’t very hungry. He noted, with the coolness of a psychologist looking at a text-book case, When you are afraid, you lose your appetite.”

He explained to me that he had been homeless before.  “But it’s harder now,” he said, “in the recession, out on the street, being older.”  He told me. “A while back some people roughed me up and took $150 of my social security money. I was drinking with them. I’m not going to do that again. ”   He is 51. He is bi-polar, he isn’t eating much, and he is afraid.  I asked him if I could pray for him. He said yes. I asked if he would pray for me.  It just didn’t seem like he was the only one who needed prayer. I did too. I’m not so comfortable with relationships where the giving only goes one way. It seems such a paternalistic way of treating adults. I don’t know what to do with his fears in the same way that sometimes I don’t know what to do with my own fears.

George asked my if I could put down my office address as the address where he could receive his Social Security check. I told him he could. This month his check came on my day off. I went down and waited for the mail to come with him. We sat on a wall and talked. He said he needs a plan, but that he can’t seem to make one. He lost his ID but is afraid to go to the DMV to get a new one. He could get an apartment if he was approved for section eight assistance but the wait could be years and so he hasn’t ever applied.

His procrastination is deeply embedded in his insecurities. He reflects that he fears that if he gets it together and takes medication for his bipolar and gets an apartment, maybe he’ll lose his Social Security. If he gets better, he won’t get assistance.  He talks, I listen.

He tells me that sometimes he wakes at night crying. He just wants someone there that he can talk to, or perhaps someone to hold him. He feels so alone.

I think about this, the aloneness. It must be the worst thing.

I finally met Carla the other day.  She is articulate, intelligent. She tells me her family has money. But she has lived like a nomad, all over the United States, in apartments, shelters, on the street, in room where people gave her temporary places.

She is terrified by the prospect that her ex-boyfriend will get out of prison soon, find her and force her back with him. She is worried that he will kill her. We give her food. We provide a chance for her to take a shower.

She tells me she is selfish. This wacks me in the head. Someone who has nothing is selfish. But she is. She is living alone because she is afraid of her boyfriend, but also in part because she won’t and maybe can’t live with anyone else. She has gotten so used to doing what she wants, when she wants, how she wants.

She lives in a tent shared with no one. She eats alone. She sleeps alone. She answers to no one. She is gradually becoming incapable of living close to anyone.

We find a place for her to live. Then she finally makes the choice. She will go to a shelter. It is winter. It is getting colder. She knows she isn’t safe, living outside in the cold, living near so many homeless men. Most of them are safe, but are they all?

The shelter will take her dog. They will help her change her identity. They will help her get a job.

I’ve been listening to people.  I know I can’t solve all their problems. I know I can’t fix their eyes or their hearts. I know one handout doesn’t solve the problem. I know I can’t heal all the damage done to them by what they have done or what other people have done to them. I know I can’t even make them take the next step they need to take to improve their safety or health.

But, nonetheless, I have been listening to people who don’t have safe places to sleep.  I am grieving their losses. I am identifying with their fears. I am holding them with dignity in an inquiring space in my mind. I want to meet more of them.

One of  my goals  — to be there to listen.

A friend called. She doesn’t have enough money to pay the security deposit for a new apartment.

A friend came by. He is getting kicked out of his father’s house and doesn’t have anywhere to go. This friend is almost 50 years old.

A friend took me aside. Her car is in the shop. She doesn’t have the money to get it out.

Another friend stopped in. He doesn’t have enough to eat this week. Food stamps come again next week.

A friend called. She just lost her job.

I read the news online.

There  is not enough food.

There is not enough shelter.

There  is not enough water.

There is not enough work.

There is not enough health care.

There is not enough opportunity.

Almost half the world, about 3 billion people, live on less that two dollars a day. One billion children live in poverty. In many cases, there is food available; people simply can’t afford it. Many people are spending up to 80% of their income on food. And with rising wheat and rice prices, it’s getting worse.

UNICEF reports that as many as 26,000 children die each day as a result of poverty. They “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world.”

Such realities overwhelm me. I can’t even appropriately imagine this horror. And so too often I don’t.  I don’t think about it. I don’t deal with it.  I  distance myself from the pain of it, from the overwhelming deprivation. It’s ugly, it’s sad. But the people. They are people. They want what I want.  I want to open my heart to them.  They want me to. I need to open my hand to them. They need me to.

The Bible says,  “If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.”   (Deuteronomy 15:7)

A friend of mine is back from Iraq. He has stories.  War has shaped life for children there.

He tells me that one day he and his comrades gave a ball to a Iraqi child. The boy immediately called his friends to play. The children came running. The ball was let loose among them, all day, all the kids, sharing the fun, bouncing with joy though the streets together. In the evening a family delegation came to the soldiers. The leaders of the family came  as a delegation. They were from the family of the boy who was given the ball. They wanted to formally thank the soldiers for the ball.

Burmese refugees live in my city.  Forces greater than them have determined that they now live away from their homeland, in San Diego.

This Christmas a friend of mine organized for families to give the Burmese children gifts. My family chose a child. On the day  the Burmese children opened their gifts an unexpected thing happened. The gifts were laid in front of each child, brightly wrapped toys and clothes. Then they were told they could open their gifts.  They just sat there. The translator spoke to them. “You can open your gifts now.” They just sat there. “Why aren’t you opening your gifts?”  The children came out with it. “They are so beautiful. We want to share them with our families.”  Most of them took most of their gifts home unopened that day.

I think about the fact that the recession has shape my life too, has made me afraid too, has changed my future. The great economic and social forces of lives look to me like the huge storms that swirl down from the Gulf of Alaska into Southern California each year, moving on the doppler, unable to be stopped, something we wait to “hit” the city. They bring rain and cold. They are good, mostly, but beyond my control.

War, diseases and economic crisises are similar, huge swirling storms. I can’t stop them. And yet, I  want to do something, not nothing. I want to listen to Thomas, and George and Carla and bring compassion and help to them.

It rained when I was in London recently, a cold, wintery London rain. I had an umbrella with me. I put it up. I held it over my wife, close.

Last night a young married couple called me. They are struggling. I went to see them. We talked and talked. Their lives have powerful, unwanted forces in them. We talked and prayed and hugged. It was better then, for the moment. They don’t know if the future will eat them alive, but it was good between them when I left. They were suprised I stayed so long. I wanted to.

I know all too well the powerfully destructive forces, my daugter Roz’s seizures, her brain damage, our inability to fix it. I have never felt so powerless as when I have held her and watched and felt her twist and shake and convulse and turn blue and seem to stop breathing — the heart in the throat, the 911 call, the rush to the hospital, the fear of the worst. It wasn’t the worst.

I refuse to believe that I am powerless before it all, some of it, but not all of it, not the angushed horse and man in Guernica.  I lift up my arms  with that man and ask God if I might be given a chance to help.

This week I bought 20 gift cards for children whose parents can’t buy them Christmas presents. I was able to do this through a gift somone had given our church. I thought about it being better to give than recieve. It is better.

In a few minutes, I’m taking my daughter down to help pass out food to people who don’t have enough.

The people of Guernica, these day I find myself wanting to bring them close.

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