Several mornings ago, I awoke to a faint dusting of snow. The air danced with specks of white fire, tiny fragments lit from early light emerging from the dense veil of winter clouds. I got ready in a daze, my mind brimming with all the people I forgot to call, all the emails I forgot to send. On the way to our staff meeting, something dark up ahead caught the corner of my eye. At first, it looked like a grouping of crows, but as I drove closer, I realized it was six to seven large, midnight-black turkey vultures crowding over some dead, frozen casualty. My car must have gotten within a foot or two of the carcass as I passed, but they didn’t flinch. Two hulked above the others on a fence glancing downward and the macabre feast continued. I shuddered at the thought of such terribly large birds silently feeding on death.
Last week, I dreamt that I was in some sort of cave. The lighting was dim and there was a fire burning near the center. In my dream, I was surrounded by dead bodies—40 or more—and my job was to anoint them. Not save them, not bury them… to anoint them. I remember feeling grave about this task, but doing it with intention and feeling some strange sense of meaning, like the task was one that needed to be done and done well.
When Samuel and I went to pick people up for the warming shelter the other night, it was late, already dark, and we only had 10 spots. A local musician was opening his home to our friends, even though the temperature was a little above 25 degrees (on colder nights, we have over 150 spots). My task was to choose and pick up the 10 people. I made calls and sought out the most vulnerable. We arrived to the sight of canes and hospital bracelets, but “Kentucky’s” wheelchair was nowhere in sight. We found him nearby at the Citgo with “Chris” and “Jerry” (who were both a little more sober than usual). They both knew they couldn’t come in with us because of the lack of space, but they were determined to make sure Kentucky got in the van.
Kentucky hasn’t been able to walk for some time and can barely move. He gets a disability check, but hasn’t been able to access subsidized housing because he has a warrant out for his arrest in Mississippi. Kentucky used to hop trains and travel around the country. When he was passing through Mississippi, he said he once went for four days without food or water in a train car. “Hunger makes you do strange things,” he said. As the train neared a small town and slowed, he began passing fast food restaurants—Burger King, Wendy’s, McDonalds—but he had no money for food. Tired and half-starved he got off the train and went into a convenience store and stole a package of baloney. They caught him and he left town before he could be booked. And he now has a warrant out for his arrest.
Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated in 1980, once said that we are called upon to be “stretcher-bearers” in this world. He was drawing from the story in Mark of the paralytic man who was raised up to the roof of a house and then lowered down to Jesus to be healed. Romero was saying that yes, God still works to mend our wounds and heal the brokenness of our wayward, capitalistic society that feeds, like a vulture, on the “the disposables,” but that we are called to be the hands and feet that bring those broken, wounded, wayward things forward.
When I saw Chris and Jerry in front of the Citgo, straining with all of their might to pull Kentucky out of his wheelchair and raise him up into the van so he could get out of the cold, all I could think about was this story of the paralytic. And I wonder what the friends of the paralytic were like in the story. Surely they were resourceful, determined, willing to break the rules, willing to piss a few people off. I can’t imagine what kind of an operation it took to raise and lower their friend. I wonder if there were moments they thought they might not make it. If they were truly the paralytic’s friends, I wonder if they, too, were outcasts. I wonder if they, too, smelled of urine and filth. I wonder about how their lives were changed after that day, about the stories they told that evening. I wonder if they laughed among themselves when they thought about the shock and dismay on the faces of the scribes and those in the crowd when bits of roof fell in on them as they dug through and as Jesus showed them grace. I wonder what that day meant for their lives moving forward.
And I wonder what kind of healing Chris, Jerry, and Kentucky seek. At this point, they have all saved each other’s lives several times over. At any given time, at least one of them is sober enough to take care of the others. But what kind of healing do they seek? I heard last night that Kentucky’s feet were so frost-bitten that the doctors wanted to amputate them. And there is something deep in Chris and Jerry’s eyes (especially Jerry’s) that is so tender, so gentle.
The other night, after most people were settled into the emergency shelters, I took the church van out with our intern, Corley, and we drove around East Nashville looking for those guys. We couldn’t find them anywhere so we headed to the MTA bus terminal to check the benches and warming rooms for people who needed to come in. As soon as we walked in, I saw a wheelchair and realized it was Jerry and Kentucky. They were trying to get someone to give them a ride to a shelter but had no bus fare. They were beyond glad to see us, they almost cried. After we checked the other areas, we turned to the task of getting Kentucky from his wheelchair into the van. It took 10 minutes, at least, maybe more, but Jerry got him in.
Jerry is a 38-year old country boy born and raised in Nashville with black and gray speckled hair and a speckled beard. He looks much older than his years and has soft, sky-blue eyes. As we were driving down to check Broadway and 2nd Ave., Jerry said, “Miss Lindsey, you know I love this man. I’ve done things for him I never thought I’d do… things I couldn’t imagine.” He described how he has been one of Kentucky’s care takers and has helped him with everything—eating, clothing, bathing, going to the bathroom… As he talked, his eyes filled with sadness and disbelief. “We’ve got to get him off these streets,” he said.
Yes, we are stretcher-bearers, Jerry is a stretcher-bearer. We sometimes share the filth and sickness of others. We tend to each other’s wounds, search for healing, and push each other forward. We walk alongside those who are beyond help and anoint the dead with oil. We work daily to comfort the afflicted and break the yokes of oppression. We pass those who prey and profit off the casualties crushed by a system of war and greed, and with every ounce of hope we can muster, we cling to the faith that a better world is possible. But what kind of healing do we seek?
Jesus said to the paralytic, “I have seen your faith, pick up your mat and walk.” And with Chris, with Jerry, with Kentucky, with Romero, I cling to the hope that our people will somehow get up and walk.