MY 5-YEAR-OLD daughter, Zoe, is in preschool. This means, as most parents of school-age children know, that there is a birthday party to attend approximately every other weekend of the year.
On the way to one of these myriad celebrations, we stopped by the church in downtown Portland, Ore., where my wife, Amy, is the senior pastor. She had a daylong meeting, and we needed to switch cars, as hers was the one with the gift in it.
As we came down the front steps of the church and onto the South Park Blocks, a local city park, we saw at least half a dozen emergency vehicles parked in a haphazard formation along the street and on the sidewalk in front of a small public restroom. Several officers were standing together, making calls on their radios and discussing the situation at hand. At their feet was what appeared to be a lifeless body, lying on the pavement underneath a blue tarp.
“Daddy,” Zoe said, “what are those police mans doing in the park?”
“I’m not sure, honey,” I said, “but it looks like somebody needed their help.”
“Is somebody in trouble?”
“Something like that,” I sighed. “Make sure you don’t drag that gift bag on the ground. We don’t want to mess up your friend’s present before we get to the party.”
My first thought was, God, please don’t let it be Michael. Michael is a man about my age who lives outside and wrestles daily with an addiction to alcohol, among several other things. We have helped him get sober, only to see him relapse. We helped him get into supportive housing, only to watch him get into a fight and get thrown back out onto the street.
My children know Michael, and sometimes we stop on the way back from the coffee shop to shake his hand and exchange small talk when he is hunkered down in a nearby doorway. Sometimes when we get to church, he is asleep on the top step in front of the main entrance. About once a week he comes in to borrow the phone, and when he is sober enough, he joins us in worship on Sunday mornings.
He often passes out in the pew against my shoulder or speaks aloud in the middle of Amy’s sermon when he is too drunk to realize where he is. He almost always smells bad, and it takes a lot of energy just to be kind to him sometimes.
“Dad,” my 10-year-old son Mattias asks me, “why does Michael drink so much?”
“Because he’s sick, buddy,” I tell him.
“You mean like Papa was?” he asks, referring to his grandfather who now is more than 20 years sober, but about whom he has heard many cautionary stories about the vagaries of addiction.
“Yes,” I said, “like Papa in some ways, and in other ways, very different.”
“For one thing, Papa had a family who loved him even during the worst parts of his sickness. They helped him get into treatment, and they supported him while he tried to stay sober.”
“And Michael doesn’t have that?”
“No, not exactly.”
“But we love him,” he said. “We’re kind of like his family, right?”
“Of course we love him. But we aren’t always there for him the way Papa’s family was there for him. We can only do so much.”
We could do more, though, and I know it. But like many in our congregation, I wrestle with what healthy, Christ-like love looks like for our fellow Portlanders who live outside. We make an effort not to call them “homeless,” as this suggests that the way we live is normal or right, and that what they are doing isn’t.
Granted, some who live outside long for the stability of a 9-to-5 job, a warm apartment, and a life absent of constant exposure to the elements. Others intentionally come to Portland from other cities, partly because of the more-moderate climate, but also because of our more permissive public space laws and relatively robust shelter and human services systems.
Some are simply passing through, taking rest here along a much more protracted journey that may or may not have a destination. And then there are those that some call the “crust punks,” many of whom have dropped out of school and walked away from—or been kicked out of—their families of origin, who couch surf by night and panhandle or play music along the city sidewalks by day.
HOW DO I begin to explain all of this to my two children who know nothing other than sleeping in their own beds at night and waking up to a full refrigerator, warm clothes, and a family that loves them? How do I explain why I go to such great lengths to help some of our neighbors who live outside, while seemingly doing nothing for so many others? How do I begin to justify our family dinners out when we encounter a man storing his own urine in mason jars on our way to the restaurant?
Further, how do I explain our church’s recent decision to close off the previously accessible courtyard to those who would rest, congregate, and sometimes sleep there? Do I tell them about the feces we found smeared across the church wall? Do I talk to them about the half-empty liquor bottles and used heroin needles we find in the garden? Or about the stolen goods people were hiding behind bushes until they could trade them for drugs?
And even if we get that far into the conversation, how do I explain having to kick a man out of the church during a recent congregational barbecue for coming in off the street and masturbating in the men’s restroom?
We want to find fault, to lay blame, to seek the silver bullet that will change everything for good. We want to be Jesus to the least among us, while also being responsible stewards of the resources with which we have been charged. We want to teach our children radical compassion and bestow upon them hearts of humble service, while also keeping them safe from those who would exploit them in ways we shudder to even imagine.
I TEXTED MY friend who works on the police force to inquire about the body pulled from the park restroom. Most likely, he said, it was a drug overdose. There was a bad batch of heroin circulating on the South Park Blocks, and deaths like this were becoming a daily occurrence. I was relieved to learn that it hadn’t been Michael, though my heart sank for those whose loved one was lost and for the poor soul who died alone in the bathroom.
He may not have been our Michael, but he was somebody’s Michael at one time or another.
The following day, on my way to lunch, I noticed a team of undercover cops arresting a handful of our regular park dwellers. My police contact told me that they were hopeful this would lead to a stemming of the bad drugs that were leading to so many deaths. I was grateful that both of my children were in school and I didn’t have to explain yet another confusing, heartbreaking, potentially soul-numbing scene to either of them.
I think, or at least I hope, that I’m showing and telling my children enough. They know by name many of the people who live outside. They have spoken to them, they have touched them, and they understand that they are real, flesh-and-blood human beings just like the rest of us. They understand that some of them have made poor choices and that others have been victims of horrible circumstances beyond their control.
They know that sitting next to an unpleasant-smelling person during worship is not the absolute worst thing in the world. I’m also pretty sure they understand that when we talk about the kind of world Jesus wants us to realize here and now, among us, that we are far from that vision today.
My wife prays with our kids every night after we tuck them into bed. They pray for those who are sick, lonely, tired, scared, and sad. I listen from the doorway, sometimes offering up my own handful of silent words, casting them out like an anchor seeking purchase in murky waters.
And then I kiss my children on the forehead and thank God that, at least for today, they are loved, secure, and content. There will be more blue tarps, more bad batches of heroin, more offensive odors, and more seemingly intractable situations.
I can only hope that our children have a clearer vision of the path to God’s kingdom than those of us in charge seem to have today.
Christian Piatt (christianpiatt.com) is the creator and editor of the Banned Questions book series and the author of PregMANcy, a memoir on faith, family, and parenting. His next book, postChristian (Jericho Books), will be published in August 2014.