The Invisible Servants

By Father John Walsh on February 15, 2014

There once was a television series about New York called The Naked City and the opening line was: There are 8 million stories out there.  How true!  Each woman and man has a story to tell and so few are told.  I would say that is really true about the homeless.  The story of homeless people begins and ends with what they look like, not who they are, not what they have experienced and we never get to know why they are homeless.  They just are!  They just are on our streets, in our neighborhoods, and although they are just there we distance ourselves from them by not recognizing who they really are. We pass them by and label them so we can deal with them, they are panhandlers, street people, the down and outers, the misfits, the poor, the marginalized and the castaways and when they are no longer just there we never given them a second thought.  We give them the odd coin to make ourselves feel good and it bothers us when they walk between cars stopped at a red light.  They carry homemade signs telling us they are broke and want whatever we can give so they can have a meal.  The signs are well folded and have been used over and over.  Imagine if you were offered an insider’s look into the lives of people who have a story to relate but have always feared telling it.      

Richard Wagamese entitled his novel A Ragged Company (Anchor. Canada. 2009) writing about the “rounders,” the street people who know the city from the pavement upward; those who have been around and they know what is going on.  They are part and parcel of a subculture and taking them out of their reality would be like taking a fish out of water and hoping the fish could survive.  You will be amazed as you read an insider’s look into the lives of people, how they made it to the street, and why they have stayed there for so long.  A change occurs when four of the characters in the book win the lottery and each one is given over three million dollars.  Eventually the ragged company will enlist 7 people.  What do you think changed the most?  Be forewarned that you will not want to put the book down but you will question yourself often about who you are, what you value and the rock-bottom meaning of your own life.

The following excerpt brings to life a street friendship, separation by death, and how it could have been so much more.    

While I worked I thought about the years we travelled together.  How we had thought we  knew each other, how we had called that  semblance of knowing friendship, and all the while my grief of Sylvan (the women he loved and had abandoned) rested under all that like an uncobbled stone – the pathway to knowing incomplete, the treading difficult, impossible perhaps, impassable.  I thought about how I failed him.  How many secrets had taught him to keep his own.  My pain granting his permission to fester and growl away at his guts too.  I thought about how easy it is to hide in the company of others, allowing the motion of lives to obfuscate your inner workings to so that what’s presented becomes more a bas-relied than a sculpted image.  I had failed him then.  Failed to let him see me.  Failed to let him know me in corrugated chips and fracture lines.  Failed to let him know that friends are imperfect replicas of the people we think we choose, and that imperfection is the nature of it all.  We come together in our brokenness and find that our small acts of being human together mend the breaks, allow us to retool the design and become more.  I never taught him that. 

In today’s culture neglect is perhaps our greatest weakness.  We procrastinate and put off until tomorrow what we could have accomplished today.   You will come upon the word “permeate,” as I did.  You will hear Digger say, “It happens when you imagine.  You imagined and it permeated you.” As to his dear friend, Timber, "So from now on, whenever I am in a park, I’m going to imagine we’re still walking around and telling crazy stories to each other.  [In so many circumstances] I am going to imagine that.  I am going to imagine that so he can permeate me, became a part of me again.  Let all the people around you permeate your life."         

There are also the invisible servants who open themselves to learn the real lessons of life.  Elisabeth Kubler-Ross spoke of how the dying teach us the real lessons for living.  One of the invisible servants Dr. Jim Withers, a doctor in Pittsburgh, is known as the Street Doctor and has done 1200 house calls a year for the past 22 years.  He says, "You see yourself in street people.  I could have been there, it could have been me... We can do many things if we do it under one unified vision that everyone matters and that we need to look after people that are the most ostracized and that will make us better people."  

I dedicate this column to my friends at Nazareth House, here in Montreal, who help me become a better person.


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