So there is this kid in front of me, all 17 skinny years of him, his curly hair all askew as he sat there on his hospital bed eating half of a cold English muffin. He’s describing to me how he had leapt out of the car when the father of his friend pulled over, trying to assess if they should do something for that ragamuffin woman walking by the side of the road.
“I dont know why, I just thought should go talk to her,” he said as he took another bite of the cold sponge bread.
And he tried talking to her as she entered the church just a few steps away, muttering to herself. She was shivering, so he took off his coat and put it on her, and then he saw she had no shoes on so he took off his boots and put those on her as well. She looked afraid and dirty and crazy as hell and maybe pregnant but really heavy anyway, and she smelled awful, and then he asked her name, which was Kristin or Christina or something like that. He told her he was Michael and then he gave her a hug even though she was dirty and smelled so bad.
There were these other women in the church and they wanted to know what he thought he was doing bringing her in the church like that, and he tried to explain but they weren’t listening. “Get her out of here,” they said, “call 911”, and then one of them called the pastor. And Michael tried to calm Kristin or Christina because she was still shaking, and the pastor came and clearly began working to get her out of the church, and so Michael bowed to his authority and ownership of the church, gave Kristin or Christina another hug, and went back to the car where his friend and her father were still waiting. “Where are your boots, where’s your coat?”, they asked, and Michael said don’t worry about it, I can get some other shoes, and they were back on the road.
The hospital attendant came into the room at that moment to tell Michael that they were moving him to a psychological facility. He was wearing two pairs of rumpled Johnny gowns, those ridiculous-looking hospital gowns with open backs, and I told him he probably looked worse than Kristin or Christina, like a hobo, but it was a smart idea to cover his rear end with the second gown, and he smiled.
Oh what a beautiful kid... in so many ways, especially in his heart. And how much he needed to know that, damaged as he was by his own damaged father. He was ok being in the psych ward, protected from his own urges to hurt himself. He wanted to be healed, wanted to know, to really know, I mean really know that he was loved.
They told him he could change into his clothes, after they had taken the cords of his sweatshirt and his sweatpants and the laces of his sneakers. I looked around at the place. It was trying to feel normal, but there were locks on the bathroom doors, tattered books and board games on the shelf that looked like they hadn’t been used in 20 years.
“Are you gonna be ok?”, I asked. Michael smiled, “Yeah, I’m good”.
I had to catch a plane and I had a four hour ride back to NY and JFK, and I hated to leave. I gave him a big hug, I wanted him to really feel it, and a pledge: “I’m praying for you, man”, and I was out of there. All the way down in the car I was thanking God for that skinny hobo boy whose heart was struggling so hard to be a vessel and a fountain of God’s ridiculously amazing love, which somehow he couldn’t find a way to drink from himself.
Damn, I thought to myself halfway to New York. Why didn’t I anoint him, throw down some of those holy oils I had in my pocket, trace the cross of Jesus onto the smooth forehead of his young face, how could I have forgotten to invoke Jesus at just that moment when he felt much like the leper Kristin or Christina? Any how many other lepers had I failed to touch with the intention of the Divine?
And then suddenly I was the leper, almost a full continent away in Mesa, Arizona.
I was with these amazing people, who were sharing their faith in another skinny young carpenter's son who somehow touched and wanted to touch all the people that everyone else was afraid of, that everyone else made a wide circle around. Not that he wasn’t warned: associate yourself with them, and you may be dragged down into the muddy muck with them. People will look askance at you, hanging around with shoeless ragamuffins, super idealistic kids with psychological issues, men and women who sell themselves and their bodies, lowlifes who live in the projects, alcoholic parents, effeminate gay men and masculine gay women, Spanish-speaking Mexicans who jumped the fence for a job. Associate with them and you may be nailed to a cross to keep everyone else in line.
I was with these wonderful Christians in Mesa, Arizona for two days, and we were talking about how to share the Answer to all our brokenness, all the world’s brokenness. And we prayed about it, and we sang about it, and we braved our own inadequacies and our weakness with one another, calling on the Holy Spirit to help us find the way to be healers.
At the end of the day I was walking back to my hotel. Michael was on my mind, and I was praying for him.
And then I fell. I don’t know how, I stepped off a curb and fell straight down, face forward. I put up no protest, no defense, no outstretched hands to soften the blow. Man, it hurt. My glasses went flying off my face, the glass bottle juice in my bag shattered and peach mango juice poured out on the asphalt, mingling on the ground with the red red blood that poured out of my face. I was a little stunned. I picked myself up, grabbed my miraculously unbroken glasses, and put my hand up to the wound on my cheek. The blood was all over my face and hands, and I was still a good mile away from my hotel.
That’s when I discovered my new identity as a leper. People approaching me on the sidewalk made a wide berth around me. Maybe they thought I was some sad drunk? Others just stared as they passed. Some kids looked at me like I was a casualty in a video game, and one of them said “Holy crap, look at that” like I was an exhibit or something and not a real bleeding human being who could actually hear him. I started to hold my hand up against my face so people wouldn’t look at me, not sure if it was because I was embarrassed or because I didn’t want to gross them out or maybe I just didn’t want people staring at me. It didn’t actually solve that issue because they stared anyway. No one stopped to offer help. No one spoke to me.
I tried to find a CVS along the way, but there were no stores anywhere, until finally I saw a local fast food Mexican place. There were no customers, but as I headed for the bathroom, one of the employees looked over at me, alarmed. I made it to the bathroom, and immediately grabbed a paper towel and wetted it. The mirror was missing from the room so I couldn’t see how bad it looked. There was a knock on the door, and I heard the muffled words, “hey, you gotta get out of there”. I shouted that I’d be out in a minute, and when I emerged, the employee just looked at me. “I’m OK,” I said to her, but it didn’t seem to matter.
To be honest, I felt like crying. It wasn’t because I was in much pain, and I knew that I wasn’t so seriously hurt. But weird as it may sound, it was like I was a little boy again who had fallen on the playground, and the only thing I wanted was to go home and cry about it in my mother’s arms while she patched me up with bandaids and antiseptic. I guess I was feeling really alone in that moment, and I just wanted to be taken care of, or at least acknowledged that I had suffered a misfortune.
I turned the corner and there was a Walgreens. Another store with no customers at the moment. I held my hand up to my face I entered, and I immediately went to the register. The lady behind the counter looked like she was, I don’t know, in her 50’s, and African American, and as soon as she looked up at me her face was filled with love and concern.
“Oh babydoll,” she said, and she came right out from behind her station and put her hands on my face. “What happened to you?”, she asked, and that’s when I lost it and started blubbering like I was that little kid in the playground. It must have sounded ridiculous because I was crying and trying not to cry and explaining what happened, this jumble of words tumbling out, and you know what she did— you know what she did—she wrapped her big arms around me and my bloody face and hands and hugged me like I tried to do with Michael to calm me down.
And when I pulled myself together, thanking her profusely, she took me back to the first aid aisle and picked out a few things. And then she brought me over to the makeup aisle and picked out something for later. “You’re gonna need to cover up some of that raw meat,” she said. And she made me laugh, me and my raw meat. And back on the path to the hotel I remembered she called me “Babydoll” and I lost it again for a moment.
A leper came to Jesus, and kneeling down, begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hands, touched his face and said “Babydoll, I do will it. Be made clean.”
“Open your hearts and embrace the lepers of our times!”, said our brother Pope Francis. He spoke of “littleness” as a place of encounter, urging us to allow the little ones of our time into our lives: the marginalized, men and women living on our streets, in parks or in the stations; the thousands of unemployed, young and adults; the many sick people who do not have access to adequate care; the many abandoned elderly people; mistreated women; migrants who seek a decent life; all those who live in the existential suburbs, deprived of any kind of dignity and of the light of the Gospel; bodily lepers, psychological lepers, moral lepers, economic lepers, racial lepers, emotional lepers. Their names are Kristin or Christina, and Michael, and Jim, and Dylan and Kathy and CJ and Rich and Jose and John and Mary and Jackie and Amanda and your name, my brothers and sisters, your name too, all of us on our knees before the Lord, asking to be made clean.
“Open your hearts and embrace the lepers of our time,” the Pope, our brother, encourages us. “And, after recognizing the mercy the Lord has used in your regard, extend that mercy to them, receiving everyone with kindness.".
And maybe with the tender name, Babydoll.