The first time I met Larry* he said, “Seven times people have tried to kill me.” Proving it, he peeled off his shirt and pointed out bullet holes and knife wounds.
I made some comment about him being tough. He laughed, a laugh I have now heard hundreds of times, and I knew right away I was going to love this guy.
That was early on—one of our very first nights in that motel—and he has been a constant presence ever since. He—like all of our friends—has a story that is both colorful and painful. He was abused and traumatized at an early age. Many of our friends were abused—sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally. Add in a stunning level of neglect, and they are left scarred for life, pointed in the direction of chaos, addiction and mental illness.
Most of the above was true for Larry. His early life sounds like a nightmare.
He and I are an interesting pair. He is black; I am white. I joke with him about us being black brothers. He laughs when I do that. Until we showed up, other than in the military, he had spent little time around white people. Ten years older than me, his body and mind are battered. He struggles with mental health issues, addiction and a body that is failing him—hepatitis, prostate cancer, glaucoma.
Sometimes, he struggles to get out of bed. But often, he finds reasons to laugh. One day, I and another team member stopped to see him and asked how he was. In a drawl you only get from growing up in the south, he said, “Well, you know, I am a schizophrenic.” We nodded. “And,” he said, “I am actually a paranoid schizophrenic.” Again, we nod. “And, I struggle with depression.” I asked him—“So, other than being depressed and a paranoid schizophrenic, how are you doing today?” He laughed that great laugh of his and said, “Actually, I’m doing pretty good.” Typical Larry!
But at other times and especially recently, he has been down. He has no vision in one eye and the other has glaucoma and is afraid of total sight loss. He has surgery scheduled; they told him there is a 95% success rate but he is focused on the 5% failure rate.
His body and mind a mess, he now moves slowly. At our house church meeting a month ago I got a long hug on the front and back end of the evening, both times accompanied by an “I love you.” He is vulnerable and lonely, afraid of the future, afraid of being blind and isolated, afraid of dying. Sure, he has many druggie friends, but we are his support circle.
Larry, in the time of the coronavirus, defines what it means to be vulnerable. His mind and body shot, his immune system weak, were he to get this bug, it is hard to believe that he would live through it. Many of our friends are in the same boat.
I think we are all feeling vulnerable and afraid right now, uncertain about the health implications of Covid-19, but also aware of the devastating financial implications. It doesn’t matter if you are poor or rich, the reality is that this will impact us all. It is a legitimate fear. No-one, not even the experts, are real sure what is going to happen. We do the best we can.
But in the middle of that I want to remind you of Larry and many others like them. Their vulnerability is far greater than most of us. They lack the resources, health and relational network to survive something like this. We have great concern for them and are trying to do what we can to help them.
We have had to shift gears in how we love and serve them. It became clear a week or so ago that from a health standpoint, it was not good to keep going into the motels. Not only did we need to think about the health of our team, we also faced a greater fear. One of us might be infected without knowing it and were we to bring that into the motels, it would spread like wildfire. So we are spending time on the phone, staying in touch with our flock, encouraging them to stay holed up and follow the recommendations we are all being given. We are dropping food off at their doors as needed and connecting them with food banks. But with the shut-down order, some of that is even difficult.
We expect things to get considerably worse. If the virus gets into motel and street-level world, the impact will be devastating. Our friends struggle to understand how important it is to stay isolated, stay inside, wash their hands. One of our team ordered pizza for Larry only to discover he had a roomful of people, druggie friends no doubt.
But there is more. For many the inevitable loss of a marginal job means that their fragile housing will go away. That turns an already bad situation into a nightmare. Some of you may have seen the Denver Post article on this, featuring a family we know from our work in the Summitview.
I am spending time right now trying to see what housing resources might flow out of the President and the Governor declaring a national and state emergency. I am hoping there will be help but no one seems real clear at the moment. Pray about that because we run the risk of having hundreds of our friends ending up on the street. And, at the moment, the legal decisions about people not being evicted likely do no apply to motels.
In the days ahead, there will be much to do and multiple ways you can be of help. There is a lot of food distribution going on right now, so that is a good thing. But in addition to the housing stuff, we will need quarantine space for the motel and homeless population. I am also trying to be involved in discussions about how to find a solution for that. I have found myself busy navigating these broader worlds.
As we get clearer on the exact help needed, we will let you know how you can help. For now, even as you take care of yourselves, please pray for our friends whose lives are very much at risk.
To put a face on all of this, let me go back to Larry. I want him to live for awhile yet. I love him and would miss him. And, he is still struggling to get his brain fully around grace. He sort-of knows Jesus but with a mixture of odd theology woven in. He worries that when he dies he won’t have lived a good enough life to get to Heaven. We reassure him, point him to Jesus, but still he struggles. I would love for him to be clear about this and at peace when Jesus calls him home. Same for our other friends. Pray with us as we navigate a chaotic world.
I will keep you updated as we move forward. Diane and I and our team are doing as well as we all can do in a difficult time. God is in control and we trust him to use all this for good, but even as we trust and pray, we also need to do what we can.
PS: Given the reality of the situation—limits in our physical access to our friends and the now state-wide stay at home order—Diane and I made a decision to move back to the house. That has allowed us to move one of our homeless friends into our motel room for a stretch. And, for the few things we can still physically do it is a quick drive to Colfax. For now, our phones are our primary friends.