I heard a story the other day that I believe is important enough to share with others. The story centers on a cold weather shelter which a church in my community opens up for a period of time in the dead of winter, when the weather is most likely to be at its worse. The church has an indoor gym/basketball court upon the floor of which homeless families can spread a mat and catch a night’s sleep out of the elements. There is also a kitchen, bathrooms and showers, so the guests can get a hot meal and clean up for a night and perhaps feel a little better about life for a while. These homeless people can line up each night for a couple of weeks and after the adults blow into a breathalyzer (no drugs or alcohol permitted in this space) the families go in and reclaim their corner of the gym floor. Various churches in the community take turns monitoring and facilitating the process, and my church’s turn will come later in January.
The speaker at my church told us a story about a family that helped last year, and particularly about a young boy who is a member of that family. On their appointed evening the parents went about their chores while the little boy in question played with the children of the guest families. As children are able to do, the differences in social position between servers and served were overlooked and he simply had a great time playing with another little boy. When their four hour shift was over the parents gathered up their little one and began their drive home. On the way the little boy was expressing how much fun he had had and how he wanted to play with his little friend again the next day. “Well, we won’t be going back tomorrow” said his father. “We only signed up for one evening.” “Can’t we just go over to their house?” asked the little guy, seeing an obvious solution to the problem. “No, we can’t” responded Mom. “That little boy and his family don’t have a house. That is why we were helping them to have a warm place to sleep tonight.” The little boy thought about that for a while and as the concept that the family of his new friend did not have a home sank in he began to tear up. “But where do they live when they are not at the church?” he asked. “I don’t really know” replied Dad. “Sometimes with friends for a while, or in their car. I really don’t know.” This was too much for the little boy to deal with. He simply broke down and cried as Dad and Mom drove home. Mom and Dad were weeping too by the time they arrived at their warm house and both ended up lying on the bed with their little son, comforting him and each other until at last he fell asleep.
After hearing that story I meditated for a while on the concept of justice and its counterpoint, injustice. The words get used in a great many different ways and their meanings can become murky. One person’s injustice is another person’s just deserts, and so on. Many people speak of social justice and injustice and it can be hard to pin those concepts down too firmly. A baby is born to an addicted mother, and clearly the baby is a victim of injustice while the mother is guilty of breaking a plethora of moral and judicial laws, and is deserving of retributive justice. But when that baby grows up with his capacity diminished by the drugs in his little preborn body and surrounded by the most marginal edges of society and then he is homeless, addicted and viewing life through a lens that doesn’t quite reflect the view from a safe and secure middle class life, has he ceased to be a victim of injustice? He should most certainly be answerable to the law for infractions of that law, but is a bag of dope in his pocket going to get him a much more harsh sentence than the same bag of dope in the high school quarterback’s pocket?
I could make this a longer bit of writing but I don’t want to preach. The topic of social justice and injustice is a difficult and tangled one and if you believe that you have it all sorted; well, you don’t. There are ins and outs, nuances and a galaxy of tangents and rabbit holes to be plunged into in a full discussion of this topic, and I do not propose to so discuss it. Rather, I find it valuable to ask myself as I ponder the issue “does it break my heart?” Do I weep because a little boy or a little girl does not have a home? If not, why not? Am I so calloused and hard that such a thing does not bother me? Has this child tapped into the heart of God in a way that I, with my books read and sermons listened to and tedious opinions rendered to whomever would listen to me, have completely missed?. I am uncomfortably certain that that is indeed the case, and I will have to give up a lot of my smug pride and false sense of superiority to even begin to understand what that little boy instinctively knows.