Blood on the sidewalk

Last night, as I came back to the Cathedral for bible study after grabbing a bite to eat, I saw that the street in front of the Cathedral was filled with police cars, fire trucks and an ambulance. My first thought was that someone was using incense in the nave again and we’d managed to set off the smoke detectors. (Some of our staff clergy REALLY like incense.) But it wasn’t that at all.

I went into the nave first to make sure everything was ok. A small group of parishioners were in there rehearsing for the “Our Lady of Guadalupe” pageant that will being presented in a couple of weeks. They had noticed the flashing lights but had no idea what they were about.

I went outside to the street and saw the police and medics gathered together under a small balcony and staircase that gives ground access to the second floor auditorium in the Cathedral House. By the time I got there they were strapping a man into a gurney and moving him into an ambulance. I waited patiently for someone to notice me. No one did. So I moved closer. No one paid me any attention. Finally I sort of shouted: “Hello? Can someone tell me what’s happening?”

A nice officer came over to me and said “Sure”. She explained to me that a man had just tried to kill himself by jumping off the balcony. He hadn’t succeeded. All he appeared to have done was to break his leg, though there was plenty of blood anyhow. He had been standing on the corner an hour earlier threatening to take his life. A homeless vet saw him and called the police. The man was taken into custody and placed under observation. Somehow he managed to leave protective custody, came back to get his things (which he had stashed on the balcony), and jumped from the balcony.

The balcony is only one story high. I guess he thought it would do. The police told me that he was very drunk. My wife, the former EMT, tells me that she’s seen this sort of thing before. People try to jump and land head first, but it’s very hard to land on your head when you jump off a building. Apparently you rotate as you fall.

After being told the news, I went back to talk with the various groups in the building who were, by this time, looking anxiously out the windows into the courtyard. 

While I had been out there, another homeless teenager had come in and gone upstairs. I found him sitting at my desk using the computer. He said he was thirsty and tired and wanted a glass of water. He also complimented me on my Macintosh. He told me his name was Benjamin David. I got him water and walked downstairs with him. I invited him to sit for a while in the art gallery, to use the bathrooms if he needed to and to rest for a while. As soon as I had turned to go back up the stairs, he ducked into the elevator to head back up to the office level. I met him at the next landing as the door opened (it’s a slow elevator) and walked back down to the gallery with him. A parishioner had just come in and he offered to sit with Benjamin David for a bit, but that didn’t last very long and Benjamin David wandered back out into the darkness.

The police officer came to find me to ask me to help her wash up the blood on the sidewalk. We got a bucket, filled it with soapy water, carried it outside and did what we could.

I don’t know if the man who jumped is going to be ok or not after his injuries. I don’t know where Benjamin David went. We prayed for them at bible study. And we talked a bit about urban church ministry. There are a number of retired clergy who attend the Cathedral and who often attend my bible study classes. They all had a story to share.

There’s probably 70 years of history doing ministry in the room when we gather. They had a lot of stories. I have a number of my own stretching back over the four or five congregations I’ve served. What’s so sad is to recognize that in the end we almost always end up just washing the blood off the stones. How I wish there was some magic way to make this sort of thing never happen.

There’s a number of extraordinary programs for homeless people a few blocks from the Cathedral. They do more good for people on the street than any other program I’ve ever witnessed. They’ve asked us to do what we can to get people to come down to their facility. There’s shelter there. Food too. Dental care, ID issuers, job banks, and 12 step meetings. But whenever I tell people coming in to go down there, they won’t. They don’t like it they tell me. 

They don’t like it because they have to be sober and “clean” before they can come inside.

I understand why people who are living on the street feel they need to take refuge in alcohol and drugs. I understand it, but it’s going to kill them. We can’t make them stop. Outlawing drugs hasn’t stopped them. Outlawing booze didn’t either. There are other demons they’re using the drugs and alcohol to hide from and those demons are so frightening that the users will do anything to find a moment or period of respite. And there are so many people hiding from their demons that they overwhelm the system.

Because they won’t stop, they won’t accept the real help they need. They won’t walk the two or three blocks more it would take for them to be able to start the process of reclaiming their lives. They don’t like the shelter because they’ll have to face their demons again without the armor they think drugs and alcohol provide.

And we’re left washing their blood off the stones. Watching people walk back out into the darkness.

In Advent we pray for Jesus to come. I’m praying this now without reservation. No more crossing of my fingers: “Come Lord Jesus, as soon as you can, but maybe tarry a little because I want to see what happens next…”. No. Now it’s “Come Lord Jesus”. Come now. The problems of this world are too great for us to try to manage without you. Come quickly. We’ll keep washing and working while we wait, but please don’t tarry.

Maranatha.

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

3 thoughts on “Blood on the sidewalk”

  1. The truth of what you write brings tears to my eyes. Thanks, Nick. Your Advent prayer is mine as well.

  2. The “above and beyond”, the REALLY being Christ’s hands and feet here on earth, can keep the blood from the sidewalk, but it makes us cross boundaries we’ve been taught to honor. It puts us at risk of being foolish, of being “taken for a fool” and could even result in injury or worse.
    Here at Trinity, we are walking that tightrope daily.
    Someone has befriended an ex-con, a man whose crime haunts him and limits his access to the real “outside” world. His new friend has found him work with several neighbors and parishioners. But this man is dying of cancer and hepatitis… and despair. We are keeping his blood off the sidewalk and showing him love he’s never seen before. Even through his gratitude, he is hoping for death. When his pain, both physical and emotional, get too great for him to bear, even with lots of help, we will have known the demons that drove him to it.
    When we keep “them” at arm’s length, those demons remain mysterious. It is probably best that way for most of us. Getting close is painful.

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