I’ve been thinking about the question, “Who is Jesus?” I’ve been told I’ll be asked that; the implication being that I’ll need a good answer. I don’t have one. I can give you all the academic language you want, but my heart doesn’t know how to dissect the Trinity. God is love, and God simply is. God is the ground of all being. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about who is what, and how, and when.
But ask me, “Where is Jesus?” Then, I get it. I can run with that. Come with me.
Jesus is in R, the old, nearly toothless man I met in the Great Hall yesterday evening, who pulled me aside to ask me to save him a dinner plate. He told me his story; lots of them do, when you give them an ounce of attention. He told me about having had open heart surgery, the stents holding his arteries open, and the 23-year-old kid who saved his life. He was crying when he hugged me. He left his tears on my cheek.
Jesus is in the Facebook friend who was two years behind me in high school, whom I didn’t know then but was aware of. I remember wanting to get to know her, because her energy and joy captivated me. We connected this past summer because a friend of hers, classmate of mine, died in August of the same cancer I survived. She drove through California last night, on her way back to Seattle from France, and stopped by for the fifteen minutes that I could spend with her. She got, and loved, what we were doing. Vivacity still lights her eyes. And she told me that I have the same light now, that I did then. At 15 and 17, we never would have shared this. Now, it’s as natural as “Can you stay for dinner?” (Alas, I had to run to a meeting and she had to get back to the road.)
Jesus is in T, homeless for seven days. A week ago he was in Los Angeles. I never got to ask him what brought him to Sacramento. Last night, he went with David and me to speak to the council of St. John’s Lutheran about the possibility of them hosting Safe Ground. He didn’t know any of these people. He was tall, and stocky, and wore a Hard Rock Café T-shirt and a crew cut. He didn’t look like he’d ever been afraid of anything. He told these polite strangers exactly that, when he talked about the adventures he’d had and the kinds of work he had done. Then he told them that nothing had ever scared him half as much as being homeless. And that Safe Ground had helped him not to be afraid anymore. He told us he was nervous—but he spoke with confidence and grace.
Jesus is in everyone who came just to listen, and in every encounter where people were heard. Jesus is in every look of surprised understanding; every smile, every laugh. Jesus is in the space that creates relationship between strangers, in every pause between the words.
Jesus is in everyone who came to cook dinner, and who saved plates for R and me because I’d asked them to. (I’d gotten caught up in talking, and missed my chance before we had to leave.) Jesus is in the conversations we had in the kitchen, in the hugs, schemes, and crazy laughter over I don’t even remember what. Jesus is in the latecomers who asked for dinner, and in the instinctual willingness of everyone to feed them.
Jesus is in the elders, who take so very seriously their responsibility to keep everyone safe. In the quiet gentleness with which they treated the guests. In the very sense of knowing we were being watched, in a loving and protective way.
Jesus is in H, who came to us after lights-out to tell us there was someone being drunk and disorderly outside. When I figured out that it was R, and jumped up because I felt guilty that he hadn’t gotten dinner, H made me promise to be safe before I went outside. I saw two long-time friends of Safe Ground, standing near R who was kneeling on the concrete. I asked them if I should bring him food or water. They said no, he was well past keeping it down.
They weren’t letting him in, but they weren’t leaving him either. They kept a respectful distance, watching. Not engaging with his rants; just being there. The way they held their bodies spoke compassion.
I went back inside. T came and whispered to me how beautiful everyone was who was sleeping. She shared the love she felt from Steve and me, and the other volunteers. H debriefed with me when I wanted to help R; he showed me that I couldn’t do anything for him, and that my responsibility was to do exactly what I was doing for everyone else. Later, he came and told us that R had walked away, and had been standing against a tree for a long time.
I know that Jesus was in R then. Keeping him calm, clearing his head, giving him peace in a night of unknowns.
I don’t know R. But I’d made a connection with him. I was startled at how hurt and frustrated I was, when I couldn’t do anything to help him. I wasn’t barred from trying; no one exerted power over me. They just explained to me that there was nothing I could do. R’s work was and will be his own. He wasn’t coherent. And he might not even remember that night, when he woke up from whatever sleep he found.
These are really hard lessons—to watch someone you care about and feel some responsibility to, go beyond where anyone can reach him. To know that God is with him and that has to be enough, because right now he’s beyond human help. To feel another layer of naivete slip off of you, and to know that you will need the skills you’re learning. To listen to someone explain to you why you cannot help—and to know that he knows because he has been there. To hear, “I know you want to, but you can’t,” and to feel the love in the voice speaking to you. To watch people you trust, who know what they are doing, hold the line with patience and compassion. To remember in your mind, heart, and body what you see and hear them do.
Why do I tell this story? I’m obviously still wrestling with it. Beside the pain, there is grace. After the frustration is expansion, competence, understanding. This, too, is love. And this, too, is real. Jesus walks, here.
Come walk with us. Steve Skiffington coordinates shelter nights, and manages the volunteer e-list. If you’re interested specifically in a ministry of presence, have a skill to share, or ideas for summer projects, contact Kirstin.