I work at a homeless outreach center that serves about 400 people each day. Every day I have the opportunity to hear the stories of the people we serve. These people are my friends: Dan, Hector, Allen … I enjoy seeing them every day (checking in on each other and supporting each other through challenging times). I hear about their kids, their apartment searches, their job hunt, and often stories from their past. Some, although fewer than you might think, are addicts, dealers or have committed violent crimes.
Hearing a person’s story is a privilege but it can also be a burden. There are times I find it easier not to know too much about a person’s past. When you hear the worst stories about drugs, prostitution, murder and violent crimes, it’s easy to judge the act (especially extreme acts) and the person.
This past week was difficult on the street. There were two stabbings and one reported death. I know one of the men who was stabbed. I have known him for two years. I know he gang raped a 14-year-old girl. I have seen him fight guys half his size. He is violent, manipulative, angry and two-faced. Honestly, I don’t really like this guy, and sometimes I feel some acts are unforgivable. This man survived the stabbing but I could not honestly pray in thanksgiving for his life or pray for his healing and recovery.
Yet, I was reading a prayer by Thomas Merton last night:
So instead of loving what you think is peace,
love others and love God above all.
And instead of hating the people you think are warmakers,
hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war.
If you love peace,
then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed –
but hate these things in yourself, not in another.
Merton’s prayer reminds me that I must first judge myself; I must reflect on my interior life and exterior actions before judging others. As I see this man - and so many others – addicted, dealing and violent, I know that I hold the same sins in my heart.
There are definitely things in my life that I am addicted to and I would not easily give up – daily internet access and coffee come to mind. There are things in my life that I “deal.” I have more than once been called an enabler when it comes to food and drink. Although I am not normally violent, there are times in my life where my anger toward others has been greater than my love towards others.
It is easy to judge people who have already been judged by society and seem so different from myself. It is as I reflect on my own shortcomings that I see that I am not so different from those I quickly judge. At the most basic level we are all sinners, we all have areas that need work. Christ came to forgive all of us, no matter the sin, no matter how big or small, we are all welcomed into the forgiving arms of Christ.
From my daily experiences, I know that I cannot change the addicts and dealers I see every day, but I have the power to continually change myself. I have the power to look at my interior life, see where I fall short, see the qualities that I quickly judge in others, and attempt to better myself. If I so desperately wish for a more peaceful world, I must first call for a revolution in my own heart.