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Stinky People, Cake and Jesus

Some places are just not intended for human comfort.

Take, for example, the concrete pad behind the building where I work. Two heat pumps and a garbage can occupy the space, which is surrounded by a waist-high concrete wall. There are no picnic tables or chairs to indicate this is a place to hang out. Nor is there any cover from the elements, which means both the sun and the rain beat down on its surface.

And yet, for the past few weeks, it’s been someone’s sleeping quarters and safe space. As I was leaving out the back door for a meeting last week, I noticed  “Mark” (not his real name) sprawled out on the concrete pad in the hot sun reading children’s books.

The books were donated to my organization to distribute free to anyone who walks through our office doors.

I asked “Mark” how he was doing, and he grunted at me. I continued to my car without bothering him because, well, the grunt meant he probably didn’t want to be bothered.

“Mark” is a thirty something year-old man with schizophrenia who has been coming to our office for years.

Sometimes he is taking his medications. Sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes he has a place to live. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he wants to talk. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes, the system helps him. But most of the time, it fails him miserably.

He spends much of his time moping around town with his head hanging low and his pants hanging even lower. The police know him. He’s been arrested and even done jail time for trespassing. Many of our social service and mental health facilities know him. Even the people at the hospital know him.

One time, when he was desperate to get the demons out of his head and a safe place to stay, he actually called an ambulance to come get him at our office. That didn’t work out very well. He’s even been committed and spent a few days in a psychiatric facility. That didn’t work out very well either as he landed right back where he was before.

“Mark” isn’t capable of living on his own, but there are no facilities in our community for someone like him. From what I understand, he is an unwelcome guest at the rescue mission. He’s been robbed and taken advantage of by people who are more streetwise than he is. And much of the time, he stinks. Literally.

And yet my co-workers treat him with the same respect they treat our donors. They listen to him – even when he doesn’t make sense. They let him use the phone – even though we are fairly certain there is not anyone else on the call. And, on the occasions they’ve convinced him to take a shower in the upstairs bathroom and he’s thrown his wet, stinky clothes away, they’ve taken them out of the garbage and washed and folded them.

They don’t do any of this because it’s in their job descriptions. They do it because it’s the right thing to do. They do it because that’s what loving thy neighbor is about: loving all of our neighbors – not just the ones who smell good or with whom we agree.

I was thinking about this last week when “Mark’ grunted at me from the hot, concrete pad and I slipped into my air-conditioned car. When the radio came on, I heard the news about the Supreme Court decision in favor of the baker who refused to make a cake for a gay wedding. I’m not a lawyer or a Constitutional expert, but I disagreed with the ruling on a personal level. I also wondered how baking a cake could even became a political and legal issue in a nation where so many people define themselves as “Christians.”

But the again, I also wondered how, in a “Christian” nation,  Mark’s safe place is a concrete pad behind a social service agency.

Christians are supposed to be followers of Christ – that’s where the name came from, right? And wasn’t Jesus all about breaking norms by socializing with the ostracized and caring for people who others disregarded? He never pretended it would be easy or pleasant. But he did teach us that no person is more important than any other person.

When I got back to the office after my meeting that day, Mark was gone. His belongings were out of sight, and there was no indication he’d ever been there or that he would soon be back

But I knew he would be.

Because the fact that the concrete pad behind my office is his safe place isn’t by chance. It’s because the people inside the building have created that safe place by accepting him just as he is.

You know, kind of like Jesus taught us,

A Portrait of Jesus

This past week, while much of the news focused on Congress, the debt ceiling and the federal shutdown, another story caught my attention.

portrait of jesus WBNS-10TV

WBNS-10TV

A school district in Jackson, Ohio agreed to take down a portrait of Jesus that had been hanging in a school since 1947. The district is not removing the portrait because, after 66 years, it realized that the portrait might be a violation of separation of church and state. It’s removing it for financial reasons.

In February, the ACLU of Ohio and the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the Jackson City School District for “endorsing one religion improperly.”  The school attempted to argue that the portrait was part of a “limited public forum” but eventually agreed in court to remove it to avoid “risking taxpayer money.”

The actual story wasn’t what caught my attention. I’ve read about plenty of similar stories over the past couple of decades. What caught my attention was someone’s reaction to it.

“This is why are country is in trouble,” the person wrote. “We are turning our backs on Christianity.”

I couldn’t have agreed with that statement more. I just agreed for entirely different reasons.

I don’t believe many of our leaders or citizens are acting in a way that Jesus wanted.

From what I know about Jesus, he didn’t care about himself. He cared about everyone else. EVERYONE else – regardless of socioeconomic status, criminal status or religion. He simply cared about people and did all he could to help them while trying to teach all of us to do the same.

I can’t imagine the Jesus that I know would care whether or not his portrait was on a wall in a school. My guess is that he probably wouldn’t want it there. He didn’t want his image (or what  a lot of people consider his image) to be worshiped.

The type of worship he wanted was for people to understand his words and behaviors and to practice them every day.

There are those who would argue that the portrait of Jesus in a school was just a reminder for students to listen to his words and to do their best to practice his behaviors. If that is what they believe, I applaud them. But if they are trying to promote Christianity as a religion in which all people should believe, then I do have an issue with that.

I don’t think whether or not someone is a Christian defines whether they are good or bad  or worthy or unworthy. But I do believe that Christianity means that, instead of judging others, we love and care for them.

And that’s why I agree with the person who said we are turning our backs on Christianity. My agreement has nothing to do with the label and everything to do with the behavior.

Which is exactly the message Jesus was trying to teach us: it’s all about how we treat others.