Prophets In Our Midst
FOR THE LAST EIGHT YEARS, I’VE HAD THE PRIVILEGE OF SERVING AS ONE OF THE CO-PASTORS OF GALVESTON CENTRAL CHURCH.
It’s been one of the greatest joys of my life. During that time, our community has developed a robust menu of social services that attend to the needs of Galveston’s unsheltered population. Each week, a motley crew of volunteers - both housed and unhoused - work together to offer showers, laundry services, hot meals, bicycle repair, medical care, mental health counseling, computer assistance, social work consultations, locker storage, emergency shelter, and more to the Island’s overlooked and under-served.
Our social service work operates with a model of equity and empowerment - blurring the line between service-provider and recipient. This has led to folks on all sides of the demographic divide to reclaim that piece of their humanity that gets lost in labels and categories. It’s not uncommon for sheltered and unsheltered persons alike to say things like, “This place makes me feel human again.” Hot showers, clean laundry, and nutritional meals are important data markers, but the newfound friendships, transformed mindsets, and stories of empowerment are what make the work most significant and meaningful.
When people first hear about this sort of work, they understandably have questions. Most folks offer really thoughtful inquiries, but inevitably someone puts forth some version of the following: “What’s wrong with these people experiencing homelessness?” Of course, no one ever asks it quite so bluntly, but questions about personal choice, addiction, financial acumen, mental fitness, etc. are all variations on that theme. In clinical terms, the best version of this question asks, “THOSE people are sick. How do we cure THEM?” At its worst, it wonders, “THOSE people are a cancer. How do we remove THEM from our social body?”
The courageous move is to invert that question: “What’s wrong with US that WE could allow such poverty to exist in OUR community?” It’s a subtle move that refuses to see the afflicted as “affliction,” but rather as symptoms of a diseased system, an unwell community.
The 20th century French philosopher and psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, helped me understand this. Lacan preferred to write the word “symptom” in its Latin form: “sinthome.” Why? Well, if you put on your best French accent (ooh la la), you’ll find that “sinthome” sounds just like the French phrase “saint homme,” meaning “holy man.”
Through some clever word play, Lacan teaches that social symptoms are prophets that should grab our attention.
If we learn to approach the person on the street corner with a spirit of curiosity rather than condemnation, and ask the question, “Why are there people experiencing homelessness in my community?” ...we might find it’s because our social body is broken. Our community needs healing. We’ve forgotten that we belong to each other. As it turns out, those who we might otherwise cast aside become the prophets - the holy men and women - who call us to change and transformation so that we can have new hope, new freedom, and experience liberation in our lives.
The real question is... are we listening?
Three years ago, my unsheltered friend, David McLaurin, offered his testimony as a part of the church’s Easter service. David opened up by saying, “Well, Mike told me to tell my story. This is my first time telling it. I didn’t think much of it, but Mike did, so I’m gonna tell it.”
David owned the room that morning. The community listened intently, hanging on his every word. When David finished speaking, the sanctuary erupted in applause. His words had captivated the hearts and minds of folks from across the demographic divide. I’ll never forget one of our non-religious attendees approaching me after the service, saying, “I don’t know if I believe in any of the shit you were talking about in your sermon, but I believe in that.” David had put skin and bone on abstract theological ideas like “resurrection” and “new life.”
David quickly became a staple in the Central community. He cut my hair and offered free haircuts to community members who couldn’t afford to pay for services. He opened up the scriptures in new and life-giving ways during Bible study. He always had a bit of wisdom and a bag of Funyuns to share - all of this while living on the streets.
David died almost exactly one year ago. (I’ve re-written that sentence a hundred times now. It still doesn’t sound right.)
C.S. Lewis once said that he was surprised that grief felt so much like fear. I’m surprised that it feels so much like anger. I’m angry because David’s death ... like Jereme’s… and Al’s… and Jim’s… and Melvin’s… and Jeramy’s… and Carol’s… and Jimmy’s… and so many others in Galveston’s unsheltered population… was preventable. He didn’t have to die.
I’ll never forget walking into a seedy motel room and finding David on the bed, unable to move. This 6’3” man who once weighed nearly two bills was barely 80 pounds. Whatever abstract idea of resurrection David had enfleshed with his Easter message two years prior, had checked out of that motel room early. He was just skin and bones.
David was really sick. Because he was sick, he couldn’t keep a steady job. Because he couldn’t keep a steady job, he couldn’t get insurance. Because he couldn’t get insurance, he was really sick. Because he was sick, he couldn’t keep a steady job. Because he couldn’t...
David would bounce between the streets and the emergency room for the next few weeks. Finally, with the advocacy efforts of UTMB’s phenomenal social work team, we were able to get David into a place that would provide the shelter and care he needed to recover. He moved in on his 47th birthday. He died three weeks later. I am confident that if David would have had access to housing and healthcare earlier, he’d still be alive. But prophets are seldom welcomed in their hometowns.
Three years later, I still think much of David’s story - so much so that I refuse to let it end here. Since David’s death, we’ve begun offering free healthcare services onsite through a creative partnership with UTMB and St. Vincent’s. We’re in the early planning of stages of opening a transitional housing opportunity for persons who are seeking to exit homelessness.
But we can’t do this work alone. We need a stirring of our collective moral imagination - a stirring that begins by listening to the holy men and women in our midst. It’s no coincidence that “curiosity” and “cure” come from the same root word. A posture of openness and wonder towards our neighbors - especially those on the streets - might lead to the collective healing for which we all long.
Are we listening?