An unexpected spiritual teacher
Last night, a heroin junkie became one of my great spiritual teachers and forever changed me. I passed him on the street, leaning on a trash can, head and shoulders slumped, rocking back and forth and swooning from his recent fix. As I continued down the street and the distance between us grew, I was initially struck not so much by him, but by the indifference a lady standing next to him seemed to show - as if she had no clue he even existed. With each step, a gnawing pull and tug came over me. The still small voice inside reflected back that I could only see the indifference of this woman so well because I possessed the same. The love in my soul whispered to me. I could’ve ignored it, but instead I chose to answer the call and turned around…
When I got to him, I asked if I could help. Deep in the throes of the drug, it was hard to make out what he said. He mumbled unintelligibly and his eyes barely fluttered open. He declined my offer to sit down and instead opted for some chairs outside of Jimmy Johns some fifty feet away. I took his arm and he winced in pain. The blood stains on his sweatshirt indicating that he was recently injured. It took us nearly 20 minutes to traverse the short distance. Slowly we shuffled. With each step he groaned in pain. He put his grimy, street-stained hand on my shoulder to use me as a crutch. I thought to myself, “I hope he doesn’t get my Patagonia jacket dirty.” And I wrestled with feeling like a douche for valuing some material possession so much.
As we shuffled, he mumbled and told me he was a hemophiliac and had a condition that caused him to have severe arthritis, akin to that of an elderly person. He was in his twenties but with each slow step I could hear his bones pop, grinding against each other. He told me he used to be a track star in high school - one of the fastest kids in the state. I wondered about what had led to him being homeless.
We sat down and he asked to use my phone. I watched as his dirty fingers tried to type on the screen. He was nodding off and drifting in and out of awareness. I thought about how I’d need to clean my phone. Again my spirit pulled at my heart. Somewhere along the way, I had gotten life so wrong! I felt sick that I’m so enamored with my possessions.
He wasn’t able to stay with it well enough to do anything productive with the phone. Inside of me, I fought the desire to leave him there. I prayed. I asked for guidance about what to do. I was reminded about the concept called the “ministry of presence”. It didn’t require that I “do” anything. Rather, that I just be there with him. Just be present. That my presence and the space I held with him was an act of love. In my soul, I felt God whisper to me. With new eyes, He inspired me to see this man as one of my brothers and a most beloved and revered creation. Even in his grimy, street-wore state, this man addicted to heroin is the greatest of all God’s creations - a human soul and spirit. His humanity soul the object of God’s great love and tenderest care. The story of the Prodigal Son danced in my head. In that recognition, a flood of openness and new strength washed over me.
Over the next couple of hours I helped him shuffle blocks to the corner store for a sugar fix. I got him some food and watched him steal an ice cream sandwich. I eventually called a Lyft to get him to the hospital. During those hours, the drugs slowly wore off and his spirit emerged. We joked. He had a dry wit that cracked me up. He told me about the people on the street and the things he did to support his $80/day addiction. As he got in the car to go to the hospital, we hugged. I embraced him as my brother. I leaned in. I didn’t care what got on my jacket. I walked away feeling forever changed and thankful for the great gift he’d given me.