This morning, while driving down a remote stretch of highway 30, on my way to work, under the Fremont Bridge, I had an experience.
I wept and wept, both in my car as well as into the late hours of the day, while sitting at my desk.
It was only a small gesture, a divine crescendo building within my inner self at a glacial pace. The Pieta mounted on the crest of a mountains-worth of inner dialogue, and still, I did nothing and everything to occur it. I was spectator, observer, and participant all at the same time.
During my morning commute, I pass numerous homeless encampments sprawled out over Portland’s urban landscape.
There is a need…..loud and clear.
Many “incidents” of civilian life intermingling with nomadic life. Mental illness manifesting itself and the clash of rational humanity meeting the irrational reflection of itself. The juxtaposition couldn’t be more pronounced then among all the cement stained, trash hewn, moss covered under-growths below the bridges and underpasses along the river. Residing among these are new-construction, sprawling condo’s of the Pearl district. Mahogany woods, tempered steel, and reflective double pained glass with furnished lobbies and workout areas all towering and clamoring for views of the river and downtown. Bright colors above, on walls, panels and deco architecture. Bright colors below on sleeping bags, tent coverings, overstuffed shopping carts, and numerous labeled designs from the empty junk food containers..
…and nothing but gray and dark beige in between.
These two modes of human existence are part of the physical reality of life as I drive, everyday, in the quiet hours of the morning, while the world is still waking.
But these two modes of human existence are also in my own self.
Something’s been wrong and unsettling for a while now….it’s in me, wrestling it’s way through. It started with some dipshit’s Facebook post about all the homeless encampments in Portland and how they need to go away, or get rounded up. This person professes a love of Jesus, but I don’t see it. I only see a loyalty to themselves and their own train of thought.
It continued with the mocking of the phrase, “my thoughts and prayers are with you” out of the mouth of everyone who has the privilege, and comfort, to say so, yet the lack of courage to dirty their hands with the hard work of fixing things.
And, I’m a Western Evangelical. I’ve only known God to be separate, sovereign, alone, and “other”.
But there has been a shifting. A tectonic move. Grinding gears and engulfed vessels, as I drive and drive and drive and think about what I’m seeing everyday. Slowly, I’ve extended one hand, and kept the other hidden behind my back. But now I lay prostrate, both hands limp and extended….head bowed.
I need more than prayer, and even more than just bread to feed the mouths of those who are hungry. I need to understand myself within the context of the story happening around me.
How can I reconcile a desire to do something for the less-fortunate?
The answer came to me through a series of thoughts over time: BECOME THE LESS FORTUNATE. Don’t just see them as autonomous beings, but as yourself. Pray for them by “seeing” them differently, not by vague and meaningless petitions. See them as though you are looking at yourself. Love them as though you are loving yourself….after that, let thoughts, sentiments, prayers, and bread be the manifestation of your acknowledgement of their own need, by which you desire to know and be known. Don’t consume them with ego, only allow yourself to be grafted with them as they are grafted to you…..this is where the Kingdom of God dwells. This is once was, and what will always be known as the Almighty, and most Holiest of Holies.
Break down the barrier between you and them. Allow the fusion and smoldering of a small fire to burn your sense of self into ashes.
This is exactly what I’ve been called to. See the unfortunate from inside the glass of my car, and instead of saying something to the equivalent of “God, help that poor soul.”, saying to myself, “You see that person? That’s you.”
But on this particular morning, the Kingdom of Heaven was to join in and affirm my path…providing the necessary domino fall from the soul into time and space continuum….
And that fall came all too soon enough this particular morning, coming upon a red light in the heart of gentrified development.
There was a car in front of me, and to the right, an older Asian man, presumably homeless, wearing makeshift, dusty clothing, maybe 50, came shuffling towards the line of cars pensive and waiting. All eyes were on him, his shuffling was flanked down our passengers side, but if he chose to veer and cross, we’d be accountable to giving him allowance, even if the light had turned green. Many of us, over the past few years, have learned to watch pedestrians (especially encampment pedestrians) before responding to traffic signals. Most often, they operate outside the crossing laws, and it’s not uncommon to see a line of cars waiting for a less-fortunate citizen slowly crossing an unmarked intersection, during a green light, possibly even wheeling their own cart or bike carriage with them.
And this man was shuffling….in the most extreme way. His feet never ascended above the ground, but only scooted about 6 inches at a time. The movement looked as though it was induced by deep pain, mixed with possible inebriation. In fact, the movements were so extremely small, it was hard to imagine him leaving or arriving anywhere, if only within the span of a few hours per city block.
The feeling of disdain and concern swelled, both in in me, and I’m sure, in others, as we watched him navigate down the narrow corridor between parked and idling cars. It wasn’t clear whether he knew where he was going, or how close he was ebbing towards oncoming danger.
After a short pause, he stopped beside the first parked vehicle and turned towards traffic, leaning onto the hood, possibly taking respite . The light turned green and we began to slowly move…cautiously swinging out and left to give him space. It was in this small, insignificant moment the veil was lifted.
It was over before it began, but the merger of both worlds created an impact crater the size of something otherwordly in my psyche.
As this man turned, and I passed him, I realized he was only positioning himself to stand in a small ray of sun which pierced through all the high-rise buildings and landed square where he was standing. With the arrival of warm sun on his face, in the pale, gray, foggy Portland morning, the man turned and made a facial expression as though he had found God Himself, and with that, put his hands together solemnly in a prayerful gesture and gave a soft, slight bow towards the sun’s direction.
The movement was not insincere. He had journeyed, from some unknown place, to this very spot, finding the warmth he sought after, be it 2 feet away from moving traffic, and upon finding it, honored it with reverence.
But that was only his path of trajectory….mine was to align with his without him even knowing.
As I accelerated, the Catholic devotional I listened to every morning via my phone, came to a close. The music faded, the sounds diminished, and the audible app called those of us faithful to finish by making the sign of the cross.
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen”
The moment my right hand met my forehead and began the sign of the cross…down to my chest, over to my left shoulder, and landing on my right, was the exact moment this man made his reverent bow.
We were one, yet separate at the same time, paradoxically drawn together by the same force, and in a single moment, becoming the same thing, yet still two individuals only passing each other on our own separate journeys.
A living testimony of distance providing the path towards union, and departure only signaling us to come back, and return home. A oneness far superior to the singularity this life had offered us. A place of grasping, and shuffling, and twisting in mid-air in order to find who we once were, and who we forever shall be.