I recently wrote about one of my favorite people, Doc Willis, and our work together with the homeless folks of Atlanta through the ministry of the soup kitchen at St. Luke’s Episcopal. As I said, Doc managed the operation and I was basically the “bouncer”, moving people in, and more of a challenge, out.
On one particularly cold day in February, we had cleared the Parish Hall from our feeding, getting the room ready for the next event.
After a good bit of coffee throughout the morning, my bladder was screaming at me for attention. Not unlike the pharmaceutical commercial imagery of a bladder leading a person the the bathroom for relief, my bladder beckoned. Fortunately, there was a bathroom near the back of the hall providing a quick path to relief.
As I entered the bathroom, I saw a straggler from the prior feeding, standing along the wall in the corner where there was a line of urinals. I made my way to the urinal next to this man, quickly unzipped my pants, and prepared to relieve myself.
Now, here I am. Standing next to a street person. Me, a doctoral student at Emory, standing alongside this street person, participating in an activity that all humans must do, urinating. You have to understand the fullness of the situation for me in this moment, and I’m not referring to my bladder.
It was an incarnational masterpiece. Me, a white Southern male, standing with a poor black street person, standing in solidarity as we participated in our common humanity here in the fluorescent lighting of this public bathroom. It was beautiful….get my drift?
He had on a red stocking hat, wrapped in Michelin tire man jacket, with army pants and boots. And me, in my Oxford cloth, buttoned-down collar, light blue shirt, with the company-issued khaki pants, Bass penny loafers. You get the picture?
As we stood there urinating, my mind soared with images of the incarnational ministry I had been schooled in. Being “with the people”, alongside, side-by-side. It was perfect. Resplendent solidarity.
And then I noticed something. There was no urinal where he was urinating. He was urinating on the wall. The smell of alcohol broke into my idyllic vision of solidarity as it clued me in that he might not be aware of where he was. He simply needed to urinate, and so he was.
For those of you who do not frequent men’s restroom, which is half of the population, the urinals are usually in a row, separated by metal partitions that provide some privacy for each user. It’s also true that men approach the urinal situation with the intent of keeping the eyes forward, not allowing one’s gaze to wander to the side, to the other person. There’s a kind of “horse blinder” effect that is an accepted code among men. No looking to the side at one’s neighbor’s business, so to speak.
And so, as I was urinating, the stream of urine flowing, I found myself thinking. Here I was, working hard serving the poor, having grown up in a great family, having attended the right schools, meeting the right people, and now urinating in the right place!
And this guy, who I did not know his story, found his home of the streets of Atlanta. I’m not sure what cultural boxes he checked, but my prejudice led me to believe he had not gone to the right schools, nor knew the right people. I really didn’t know but my bias led me to my conclusion. What I did know was that he was not urinating in the RIGHT place, in fact, there was no urinal. He was pissing on the wall.
That’s when an epiphany occurred for me. a breakthrough of Truth. Here I was doing all the right things, making the right moves, even urinating in the right place. And this guy, down and out on the streets, not even able to urinate in the designated place. And the Truth broke through: God loved this man just as much as God loved me. This moment broke through my cultural training that taught me that to earn love and acceptance in my world, you had to do good, however that is defined. Love is a conditioned response, dependent on how you were doing.
The radical Christ notion is that God loves us all the same, whether or not we color within the lines or not. even urinating in the proper place or not. No matter how many good deeds, right actions, appropriate urinals we hit…..God loves us. God accepts us.
I knew that. I had been taught that all my life. Ministers had preached to me about this, as they addressed the discrimination along racial lines in my home South. Scholars had written about the lofty notion of God’s love and grace, encouraging my young mind to accept the reality that I am accepted. I got all that in my head, but the way life was trotted out to me did not square with this Gospel notion. You were what you did, you were rewarded for doing good, and punished for doing bad. This was in conflict with the words I had heard coming from Jesus, who I said I was trying to follow in my own life.
On this cold February day, at High Noon, just for dramatic effect, in a public bathroom, increasingly smelling of urine, I experientially learned a lesson that had dodged my sensibility to point: God loves all of Creation equally. You can not increase it by doing good, nor decrease it by your failure.
Truth is, I would have to learn that over and over again. I find that I suffer from a spiritual amnesia, which means I sometimes forget what I know and have to be re-minded. That is why I found the weekly experience of Holy Eucharist (holy communion in everyday language) such a powerful, transformational action.
At the moment of communion, I am reminded of God’s love for me, specifically, particularly, peculiarly me, ME, as the priest presses the bread into my trembling hand, But as I watch others receive the chalice of blessed wine, it also reminds me that we are all in this together. We are essentially, eternally connected. This simple practice resuscitates the dialectical tension of individuality and community alive and kicking in my soul.
It took a gritty soup kitchen, a urine perfumed bathroom to provide the learning ground for my experience and acceptance of God’s overwhelming love.
Grace at the urinal.
And that leaves me grateful.