Luke Sanders was a sweet man. He and I would exchange greetings outside the parish office where I served as rector. He’d always smile and offer an encouraging word for me. “What’s the good word today, Luke?” I’d say. And he’d say something like, “God’s good all the time” or “I’m blessed today.” Luke lived on the street when he wasn’t living in our shelter for homeless persons nearby. Sometimes he’d be denied entry to the shelter if he were too drunk and disorderly. So, he’d just hang out around our church block that included the shelter as well as a community kitchen that fed him and hundreds of others each day. When he was “plastered,” he wasn’t easy to deal with. I recall the times we had to pull him from the middle of our busy street where he had been “directing traffic” (in his altered state, he saw that as his important public service).
When Luke wasn’t wild-eyed drunk, he was a pleasant companion. Earlier in life he’d been an accomplished Golden Gloves boxer. I know this because he showed me old pictures of him in the ring wearing a boxing belt with his name on it. He had family (we all have family, somewhere, right?), but I could never know when he talked about his wife and children whether they were real or just a distorted memory from an alcoholic fog. Of course, I was always too busy to listen to him more.
One hot summer we didn’t see Luke for a few days. That wasn’t at all unusual. He’d occasionally get arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct and spend time in jail. But then we noticed an awful odor from the window well in front of the Parish Hall. We found his body there. The autopsy determined he died of heat stroke and dehydration. A few days later, with the full Burial Office of the Church, we buried his remains in our church’s columbarium grounds. Presiding at his burial didn’t assuage my conscience.
We failed Luke Sanders. More accurately, I failed Luke Sanders. We housed him. We fed him. We pulled him off the street when he was a danger to himself and others, but we failed him. Our charity toward Luke, as Dr. Bob Lupton of Focused Neighborhood Strategies in Atlanta would say, was “toxic.” I knew his addiction was a disease and not a personal moral failing, but along with others, I settled for dispensing charity toward him. We did this, all the while patting ourselves on the back for how “Christian” we were toward him and toward others, who like him, were suffering.
We in the Church dispense charity because it’s easier than the more difficult work of transformation and conversion of life. Dispensing charity makes us feel good about ourselves. Such charity dispensing though keeps the other person as an object of our good works. It doesn’t, as our Baptismal Covenant says, “respect their dignity.” Our behavior won’t change until we make our work to be more about the “good of the other” instead of “our good feelings.” Luke’s face still haunts me today. And appropriately so. I don’t want the haunting to go away. It’s a kick in my conscience’s backside reminding me that I had a hand in his death. I don’t want the cheap absolution from voices who say: “He was a drunk. You did the best you could.” I’ve heard such voices too many times and I know them to be lies. We didn’t do the best we could. I know I didn’t.