Having done his time, Phil was back on the street. He was bulked up—upper arms the size of my torso—looking as if he power-lifted his way through his two year sentence. There was a whip-edge to Phil and it was not my desire to see him snap. I was the shelter manager and it was my job to decide on his stay.
There had been a minor occurrence, some words with staff, and now he sat across from me in my office. I told him I wanted him to make it, but that if he threatened staff in any way I would have to bar him. I added that everyone at the mission wanted him to make it, that we would do all we could to have that happen. He relaxed, smiled his Morgan Freeman smile, and in his rasping voice laid open his life. Regret upon regret. Ache upon ache. An hour, maybe two, and still there was more.
Phil did make it. He made it in short bursts, then in long stretches, then again, in fits and starts, until last summer when he died.
Phil was one of 22 men and women—the ones we could confirm—who died in our inner-city in the past 12 months. They were our friends and a couple Sunday’s ago they were remembered at a memorial service held at Hope Mission. Family, friends, street friends, street family, came together through grief, recalled softer times. There were stories, there was laughter, weeping—and there were "why’s".
A band played—a worship band partly made up of people who are in the Mission’s addictions program. They played and 150 people from the inner-city sang “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace.” And Frank at the back of the room, drummed on his hand drum.
Then a collective eulogy: pictures and names of the deceased appearing and fading on a white screen, while a single guitar played. Not all the names were matched with pictures; some, like Phil, had only a head-silhouette.
It’s too obvious and inadequate to say those who died were all people with stories, with mothers, with childhood friends now lost to them. Stories too easily forgotten. Silhouetted faces we passed by hundreds of times.
What was it that they longed for? What were their joys? Their sighs? What did they leave? What dreams were untried? What was left undreamt?
What they had in common was an intimate knowledge of the street and a tenuous connection with a healthier community. Also in common, too often, was an addiction; but with it, as often, there were genuine attempts at staying clean, turning things around, committing to something higher.
Among these 22, there were failures, catastrophic failures, and there were successes, exemplary successes.
There is no template for this—for how one makes it. A clean sprint can be as Herculean an effort for one as a lifetime of abstinence is for another. An addiction overcome, can reveal the roots of the deeper longings and addictions of the soul, and without an intervention of love, the revelation can bring back the external, the obvious addiction.
And what of us, are we so different? What and where would we be without tenderness, without an early history of love-interventions? If we’re lucky we’ve received, through many kindnesses, the internal tools to be able to externalize, turn over and release our anger, envy, despair, bitterness, rivalry. If we’re not, the term dry drunk comes to mind—we haven’t had a fix for years, but neither have we had a "sober" day.
As it is we are all in process. For us all, beneath our grotty to glamorous exteriors there percolates a kind of glory. As the Chaplain pointed out in reference to the epitaph on Ruth Graham’s gravestone (Billy Graham’s late wife), this is a glory only fully revealed when we’ve reached the "end of construction."
There is, in our common humanity, a hidden glory that points to something beyond ourselves. And this is what rose up at the memorial service. And it brought comfort and restored dignity to friends and family—by restoring dignity to the men and women who died.
In the meantime there was a message left for us. A lady who has eyes for deeper wisdom, who stood to speak about her friend said, "These were beautiful people and for us who are still here, it’s our tears, our tears will give us strength, as we cry not apart but together."