To say that I knew David would be untrue. To say that anyone knew him at depth would also be untrue.
I met David in 1983, on my first visit to Hope Mission as a volunteer. I was part of a group that brought a "gospel program of message and song" to the Mission’s evening service. Sandwiches and hot tea and Jesus. Not in that order.
David was my age. And in that first service, I thought I felt a connection. He responded to the message and when we gave the "alter call," he came for prayer. I lead him to a small corner office where we prayed and he "accepted Jesus into his heart." I was strangely elated. And David seemed, well, not too different. What I was looking for was a bit more exuberance. I was hoping, in the afterglow, to talk of important spiritual matters. We talked. But David, despite my steering, just wanted to talk about some of the people he met on the street, the things he saw, an altercation he had had. And so, feeling my misappropriated disappointment, we talked. Still, having come for this proselytizing purpose, I left mostly satisfied.
Our little out-of-town group came back to the mission at least once a month for six years. David was usually around. And over that time he often prayed with someone, and often accepted Jesus in his heart. In my zealous-evangelical mind I saw this as failure. Something about the process that wasn’t clicking or sticking for David. Seeds on rocky soil or a hard path and all that.
When I started to work for Hope Mission, the big-E edges began to get rubbed and chipped off.
David was around, and I got to see him more often. Sometimes daily, sometimes I wouldn’t see him for months. When I did meet him, he was rarely with anyone.
I learned of his habits, found out about his fights, his times in remand and prison, his addiction, his street life. David was not above a certain nefariousness. He liked playing people, and he had the skill for it. To say that it was simply a mechanism for self-protection would be to over-simplify. And yet, underneath, there was a pliable, longing, kid-David.
David, I was told, died on the street with a needle in his arm. A lonely death.
Looking back I often failed David. Certainly in the early years, in my gusto to see him "saved," and healed, I missed him. Seldom, through my gaze, did I give him the opening to find himself as someone enjoyed for who he was.
What David was looking for in that office all those years ago, is what we all look for. An experience to slack our loneliness. Some human eyes that tell us, we matter. Some flesh and blood contact that tell us we’re not in this alone. Something to expel the long-toothed fear that we are not accepted. Here, after all, in the meshing of our personal space, is where the Spirit of Jesus resides.
And as for the question of David’s soul and heart, the mercy of God took care of that long before I tried to get David to really mean it, long before I tried to have him, "get serious with God."
Whether we work or volunteer in the inner-city or not, and whatever our faith, we are humanized by our engagements. That was my lesson, and in some way, David’s gift to me.
I still hope for significant social change, but I’ve found that the deeper wisdom about the possibility for change, is always found in the small everyday meetings. Most often in those things we take for granted. Never in the orchestrated, the forced, the dished out. Only always in a piece of exchanged heart.