Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Embracing the Leper

The policy of the visiting district is “No travel for sex offenders will be approved for recreational purposes.” Therefore, your travel request is denied.

As I sat staring at those words on my Blackberry, trying to comprehend the words on that tiny little screen, I could slowly feel my heart grow heavier in my chest. It didn’t make any sense. I had been told that there would be no problem. I had made plans…airline tickets had been purchased. I had a new set of custom made golf clubs in the trunk of my car. I had been going to the driving range to improve my game so that I wouldn’t be an embarrassment to the men I was going to be playing with. There HAD to be a mistake!!

But, it was no mistake. My request to travel to California on a short golf vacation with friends had been denied. Even my attempts to appeal the denial were turned down. There was nothing more for me to do than to let my friend Paul know what had happened so that he could find someone to take my place on short notice.

I’ve reflected on the words of that brief e-mail that I received from my probation officer a number of times over the past few days and I realize that the heaviness of my heart really doesn’t come from the fact that I don’t get to go on a golf trip. Not that I don’t love to golf… I do. And not that I wasn’t looking forward to this opportunity to travel with friends…because I was. The weight is my chest is caused by a much deeper realization. Two simple words in that e-mail that are completely life altering, because it places me in a class of people that are outcasts.

In Biblical times, there was another class of people that were outcasts from society. In fact, they were so unwanted, that if they came near people, they were required to call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” Members of mainstream society were forbidden to have contact with these people, and if one were so bold as to touch them, they too would find themselves cast out of the community. These people were “lepers” and their condition caused them to be isolated and separated from all of society.

It has taken millennia for leprosy to be more clearly understood and for treatment options to be developed. But even with a greater understanding of the disease, there is still a stigma that will always be attached to those who have the disease. And so it is for me, and literally thousands of others who carry the same “scarlet letters” – “S.O.”

But, I’m learning that the first place that the stigma has to stop is with me. I’ve had to forgive myself for the choices that I made. I’ve had to accept that my moral core is not the person who spent countless hours on the internet in places I didn’t belong. And I’ve had to accept that my future is not what I thought that it would be ten years ago.

There is a story in the Catholic Church of St. Francis of Assisi embracing a leper one day on the road.

He could ride on. There is no reason to stop. As he passes, he can throw down his last coin to the leper. His horse lifts one hoof and paws the dirt. It is time to go on, to go home. As Francesco drops his hand to the reins, his eyes fall upon his own expensive, well-fitting glove, and it dawns on him that this leper is not wearing gloves, which is odd; he and his kind are required to wear them when they leave their hospitals, just as they are required to wear and ring their bells to warn the unwary traveler of their approach. Again Francesco looks down upon the solitary figure of the leper, who has not moved a muscle. His hand is still wrapped around the cord of the bell, his head arrested at an angle. He is like a weather beaten statue, and Francesco has the sense the he has been standing there, in his path, forever.

The leper watches him with interest. His blasted face is bathed in sunlight; the black hole that was his eye has a steely sheen, and a few moist drops on his lips glitter like precious stones. He moves at last, releasing his bell cord and extending his hand slowly, palm up, before him.

This supplicating gesture releases Francesco, for it dictates the counter gesture, which he realizes he longs to make. Without hesitation, he strides across the distance separating him from his obligation, smiling all the while as if stepping out to greet an old and dear friend. He opens his purse, extracts the thin piece of silver inside it, and closes it up again. He is closer now than he has ever been to one of those unfortunate beings, and the old familiar reaction of disgust and nausea rises up, nearly choking him, but he battles it down. He can hear the rasp of the leper's diseased, difficult breath, rattling and wet. The war between Francesco's will and his reluctance overmasters him; he misses a step, recovers, then drops to one knee before the outstretched hand, which is hardly recognizable as a hand but is rather a lumpish, misshapen thing, the fingers so swollen and calloused that they are hardly differentiated, the flesh as hard as an animal's rough paw. Carefully, Francesco places his coin in the open palm, where it glitters, hot and white.

For a moment he tries to form some simple speech, some pleasantry that will restore him to the ordinary world, but even as he struggles, he understands that this world is gone from him now, that there is no turning back; it was only so much smoke, blinding and confusing him, but he has come through it somehow, he has found the source of it, and now, at last, he is standing in the fire. Tenderly he takes the leper's hand, tenderly he brings it to his lips. At once his mouth is flooded with an unearthly sweetness, which pours over his tongue, sweet and hot, burning his throat and bringing sudden tears to his eyes. These tears moisten the corrupted hand he presses to his mouth. His ears are filled with the sound of wind, and he can feel the wind chilling his face, a cold, harsh wind blowing toward him from the future, blowing away everything that has come before this moment, which he has longed for and dreaded, as if he thought he might not live through it. He reaches up, clinging to the leper's tunic, for the wind is so strong, so cold, he fears he cannot stand against it. Behind him, the horse lifts his head from his grazing and lets out a long, impatient whinny, but Francesco does not hear him. He is there in the road, rising to his feet, and the leper assists him, holding him by the shoulders. Then the two men clutch each other, their faces pressed close together, their arms entwined. The sun beats down, the air is hot and still, yet they appear to be caught in a whirlwind. Their clothes whip about, their hair stands on end; they hold on to each other for dear life.

From "Saint Francis Meets a Leper on the Road", by Valerie Martin

That moment transformed Francis’ (Francesco) life. His perception of who, and what a leper was had been changed forever. That’s where I am today. I’ve embraced the leper, for he is me. And I pray daily that our society will embrace “lepers” of every form in the same way. Fortunately for me, God has placed men and women around me who embrace me and love me for the man I am inside. Not the man with the scars of my own form of leprosy…but the man after God’s own heart that I was created to be.

Sculpture by Timothy Schmalz
Photo from Flickr

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Coffee Time

I was jarred by the ringing of my cell phone as I sat watching the end of the golf tournament.

“Hi, it’s me...from group. Are you busy?”

“No. What’s up?”

“Do you want to meet for coffee or something?”

Before I answered, I sat there in stunned silence for a moment. This was a new experience for me. I’m not used to people calling me out of the blue on a Sunday afternoon to go have coffee. It’s not that I was too busy, nor did I have any place else that I needed to be anytime soon. It was just something new.

“Uhhmmm….sure. Where are you now?”

We set a place to meet at a Starbucks midway between where he was and I was and I cleaned up and got in the car for the short drive. As I drove, I wondered what he might want to see me about. He was definitely a man who was dealing with a lot of issues and I was glad that I had been able to help him over the past few weeks.

On Thursday night during our group, he mentioned to us that his unemployment had run out and that the trailer that he had been living in was no longer available. He was living in a “low rent” apartment until he was able to find a new place to live, but he did have a lead on a place. His car is in the shop and he isn’t sure when they will have it fixed for him and he can’t start his job at the golf course until he has transportation. The State was graciously providing him with $15 a month for food stamps, but that would hardly feed anyone for even a few days.

After group, I asked him if he could use a little help and after swallowing his pride, he accepted twenty dollars from me. As we walked down to our cars to leave, we visited for a moment about the lead he had a place to live and I offered to help him with his rent if it worked out and if his family wasn’t able to help him right now. He promised to call if he needed help. True to his word, he called on Friday and came by my work to pick up some money to pay for the initial rent on his room.

I heard from him again the next day. He was calling from a motel where he had found a bed for another night. His cell phone had been disconnected for non-payment and he had no money for food. A quick stop at the bank and I swung by his motel to drop the money off. As he opened the door to his tiny room, the odor of stale cigarette smoke was almost overwhelming. He offered me a cup of coffee, which I kindly refused. We shook hands and as he headed to his car (borrowed from his ex-wife) so he could go pay his cell phone bill, I walked back to my car and went about my day.

As I drove away, I reflected on how blessed I am. I could have found myself in the exact same place he was. Society isn’t kind to those who have served time in prison and in the current economy where jobs are difficult to find…they are even more difficult for a person with a record. But I am fortunate to have a strong support system of family and church which has provided me with a good job, a nice place to live and the love and support needed to make it during this valley of my life.

As we walked into the Starbucks on that Sunday afternoon, I bought us our drinks…a skinny mocha for him, a non-fat latte for me and we found a couple of comfortable chairs in the corner. There was a part of me that was wondering “what next”, but a bigger part of me that was just enjoying some company. For the next two hours, we simply visited. He talked about his family (one of 13 kids of an abusive, alcoholic father). He shared a story of reconciliation with his dad that occurred because of his arrest. We talked about the frustrations that we face as a result of our choices and the mutual commitment that we’re not going to let that lapse in judgment define our entire lives. He told me about the conversation he had with his dad that morning about “his friend” who is helping him right now to just survive and the advise that his dad gave him to accept the friendship. And I told him that he needed to consider me on the bottom of his “payback” list. His first concern when he started to get an income again was to pay off his treatment and make sure he has a roof over his head and food in the cupboard.

Before long, it was time to go; me to church and him to another appointment. I’ve never been one to just take the time to sit with a friend and simply visit. I’m not sure when he will call again, but I have a hunch that it will happen. And when it does, there will be no hesitation on my part. We’ll simply find a place, buy a cup of liquid caffeine, and spend however much time we have to enjoy the company of a friend.

Photo from Flickr