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Amazing Grace

Project HOME, the nonprofit organization where I work, has been celebrating its 25th anniversary throughout 2014. I have been there almost the entire time, and have worked on issues of homelessness and poverty for even longer. In a recent fit of reminiscence, I re-read this old article which I had written which recounted a very moving and powerful incident in one of our early shelters. I thought it worth sharing. - Will O'Brien

The details were still murky: Eddie, who rarely stayed more than a night at a time, had been there just the previous week, but nobody had seen him in several days. Conflicting accounts were proffered for where the body was found, by whom, and when. On one detail - the cause of death - there was no doubt: heroin overdose.

Eddie had been in his late twenties. A jovial sort, he was a friend and companion to many of the men staying at the shelter, and charmed many passers-by who encountered him on the streets as well. What would otherwise have been an anonymous death, a cipher in a municipal coroner's log, was embraced by this motley community for the human tragedy that it was.

As more men came in for the evening and the news was shared, a sense of shock seeped through the shelter. Some tried to brush it off, perhaps needing to stay numb to a tragedy which impinged too closely on their already precarious lives. Others swapped tales of Eddie's panhandling prowess, and the genuine friendships he had struck up with folks in the community.

In the midst of this makeshift wake, Donald, the drug and alcohol counsellor, showed up.

Donald quickly forged his own niche in the sharing and tried to stimulate the men to talk more about their personal response. One of the residents, J.D., had been a drug buddy of Eddie's and in the throes of his own fragile effort at recovery. He became the most talkative, and soon Donald and J.D. were grappling with the finality of death, the meaning of life, the ultimacy of the choices with which we are faced.

A few men on the fringes of the conversation listened somberly and tossed in occasional observations.

As the philosophical debate thickened, in came Iggy, sporting his usual blanket.

A long-time street addict who was exhibiting the first signs of AIDS, Iggy was prone to be quiet and deferen­tial - until the heroin began flowing in his veins. He then turned high-spirited, a hail-fellow-well-met with an annoyingly loud voice. His manner, while good natured in intent, could often seem abrasive. Not too infrequently did we have to ask him to leave when his excessive conviviality sparked tensions.

Iggy was clearly already high that night. Though he had been fairly close to Eddie, he was unaware of what had happened. For a moment, the news stunned him out of his jocular demeanor, but he quickly recovered and acted unphased.

"Oh well, we all got to go sometime!" he retorted in his usual high-volume, gibing tone. "We come into this world with nothing, and we're all nothing but dust in the long run!"

He spouted a few more mock platitudes then made off toward the TV room to indulge in his usual ritual of plopping down in the first seat, wrapping himself up in his blanket, and talking back to most of the programs.

Donald, with his keen-edged style of dealing with addicts, was not going to let Iggy off so easily. He let loose with a barrage of questions: Doesn't he worry that he could end up the same way? Doesn't it make him think about his own life?

"Eddie made his choices. Sure, I'm sorry for the guy. I liked him, and all. But we all make choices in life. That's the way it is. Can't change that, just got to accept it."

"But aren't you just committing suicide by continuing the way you are?" Donald pushed. "Is that all right?"

Several men looked on quietly and listened.

Iggy went on about death being a part of life, how we all have to face it... He recalled how his mother had died, and how he'd had to just go on. "Look, I know I'm making my choices, too," he said. "But I don't hurt nobody. I'm friendly to people. What I do with my life is my business. I have a good time, but basically I'm a decent guy."

As he spoke, the tone in Iggy's voice ran some odd razor's edge between his trademark flippancy and a strangely earnest passion. Eventually, he turned theological:

"A lot of people judge me, but I know that God loves me. I don't always do the best, but Jesus died for me and forgives my sins. I know that Jesus is my savior, and when I die, I'll be with him in heaven."

He spoke all this with that same hint of a smirk, melodramatic wavings of his arms and the usual bellowing voice. It was all in his own distinctive style, yet the words had a peculiar power, a raw authenticity.

As I listened in on the conversation, I was astonished. These pronouncements were hardly typical of Iggy. Was it just the bluster and bravado of a desperate heroin addict steeped in denial? Or some startlingly guileless truth bursting forth from his scarred heart?

I have long believed that God has a special love for the poor. My theologically-trained mind has analyzed the biblical concept of a preferential option for the poor, a divine compassion for the dispossessed and disenfranchised. These very convictions were a large part of the reason I was working at this shelter. But as I heard Iggy wax theological, I found myself shuddering internally with vestiges of some deeply incul­cated moralism. How could an unrepentant drug addict proclaim such certitude of his salvation, such intimacy with Jesus? Even the worst of wretches had to change their ways before they could proclaim the sweetness of grace.

I shuddered more deeply with the possibility that it was true, unfathomably and recklessly true. This homeless man, enmeshed in a deadly disease, throwing his life away in sheer waste, assigned by society to a figurative - if not literal - garbage heap. He brazenly asserted that he was a beloved child of God, that Jesus was his Lord and would gather him up and embrace him in his inviolable preciousness. Perhaps it was true, so truthful as to shatter the very foundations of our society.

Perhaps it was gospel.

Iggy finally retired to the TV room that night. Talk of Eddie's death continued sporadically. Life at the shelter returned to its austere normalcy, though colored by this jarring interrup­tion of mortality and human vulnerability.

Iggy, I suspect, will be in and out of our shelter. He will spend most of his days on the streets downtown, panhandling for drug money. But, as he asserted, he will do so with great friendliness and not a shred of malice toward anyone. He may at some point opt for recovery and seek treatment, but then again, like his late buddy Eddie, he may not. In any case, I assume he will cling to the love of God and the saving blood of Christ.

One night we may come into the shelter to hear that, ushered by addiction or drug-induced AIDS, he went the way of Eddie Lowry, and we will grapple with that tragedy, too. I pray that day does not come, but if it does, I will offer thanks to God for the awesome mercy that embraces Iggy, myself, and all of us trying to eke out meaning and hope in this broken world.


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