Homelessness, grief and Holy Week

We think Jesus leads the way into the dark, and I get that. But what if it’s the other way around?

By Trey Lyon

During this Holy Week a story keeps reappearing on my Facebook feed, the tale of the varying responses of an affluent community in North Carolina to a bronze statue of a reclining Jesus, cast to resemble a homeless person sleeping on a bench outside the local Episcopal church. Some folks from our congregation suggested we get one, and the only thing I could think was that then some of our friends who camp on our steps during the week would have some company — and they might even resent the bronzed Savior for occupying a perfectly good bench.

It’s a familiar trope — men and women, struggling with various stages of housing insecurity and often addiction, stopping by the urban church, the churches in the throes of neighborhood decay or, more recently, on the blinding edge of gentrification. This week as I made the .4-mile drive from our house to the church, I saw a man walking who I hadn’t seen in our area before. He looked out of sorts and I was concerned, but he was walking very deliberately, so I didn’t think much of it and carried on.

Later that day, while returning elementary schoolers to their homes I saw him sitting under a bridge, a puddle beneath him. One of my volunteers genuinely said “Are you sure he isn’t … dead?” He moved a little and seemed to be eating, so I kept driving. On my last pass under the bridge going home he was eating some food and moving a bit more.

It was about 20 minutes later that the neighborhood listservs and Facebook pages blew up — police cars all over the housing complex that borders the bridge, concerned folks wondering what was going on. Eventually the word came out: the man under the bridge was shot in the neck, allegedly by a young man who lived in the complex. Many of our after-school kids were outside playing and saw it happen.

I have been trying to process this event since it happened. My initial guilt about not stopping and helping the man eventually gave way to realizing if I had followed that impulse I would have been beside the man when he was shot, likely in danger myself. I have considered not only the plight of the man under the bridge, but the man who shot him, who grew up in that complex seeing other people be shot, removing not only the innocence of childhood but the novelty of violence, building up callouses on the soul like a virtuosic violinist does on her fingers.

I considered our kids — the ones who only an hour before first complained when forced to write something nice about one another, but who quickly smiled and stood with a little more confidence as they read the affirmations of their peers. The joy of that moment was again pierced by the constant threat of violence in their lives. Mostly I just grieved. Wallowed and grieved.

I wish I had the answers, I really do. In this week of liturgical darkness, the feelings have come more naturally than in other years when journeying to the cross was more like turning off the lights and pretending you were camping. I read an interview with Barbara Brown Taylor recently in which she said, “The great hope in the Christian message is not that you will be rescued from the dark, but if you are able to trust God all the way into the dark, you may be surprised.”

A song from one of my favorite bands came to mind — the story of a lover telling his beloved that should she die, reassuring her with the refrain “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” And I started to think about this Holy Week — this march to the cross, to death, to suffering. I thought about how I always think of it as following Jesus to the cross. There’s good reason to think that way — Jesus says we should take up our cross and follow him. Then there’s Honest Thomas saying what everyone is thinking when Christ sets his eyes on Jerusalem: “Well, let’s go on ahead and die with him.” We think Jesus leads the way into the dark, and I get that. But what if it’s the other way around?

One of my favorite preachers once used the old atonement idiom “the ground at the foot of the cross is level.” The conventional wisdom is that this means we’re all on the same footing — ethnicity, ability, gender, socio-economic status, heritage — it’s all level at the cross. But this preacher turned it by suggesting that in the cross the ground is level for God. Through Jesus, God experiences pain like God has never known, brutal, relentless, the kind that leaves a hole inside of you.

I know that’s another school of atonement than I was raised in and perhaps different from the one you know by heart, but what if Holy Week is Jesus reminding us that he will follow us into the dark? And, to borrow the image of Barbara Brown Taylor, what if that is the surprise — that in the darkness Christ is present. Not Easter Jesus, not Sermon on the Mount Jesus, not wise-cracking, disciple-teasing good-natured Jesus, but crucified Jesus, broken Jesus, beaten, whipped and scorned Jesus. What if that Jesus dwells in the darkened corners of our grief and pain? Holy Week gives voices and cries, screams and deep, labored breaths to that Jesus who sits in the darkness with us, showing us that this place is not as solitary and isolating as it feels.

Jesus sits in that darkness with me, the darkness that is purely existential and theoretical, but I believe he sits in that same darkness with the man under the bridge who is now in the hospital fighting for his life, longing for resurrection. This Holy Week Jesus must also surely dwell in the darkness with the young man who is so consumed by the darkness that the only way he could cope was to propel the world further into disarray with the trigger of a gun.

As Jesus people we so often think of our faith as a barometer of discipleship, reminding ourselves that we have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back. On this Holy Week, as the cross looms heavy in the distance and the crosses of news tickers and world events run before and behind it, may we find Jesus has decided to follow us into our darkness — no turning back, no turning back.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.