the true cost of protecting human dignity

Chris Heuertz & Word Made Flesh are in the Washington Post today!

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wmf moldova: december updates

go here.

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advent

a little advent reflection i wrote recently.  click here.

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our friend tuna

i’m wearing my tuna shirt today.

Text taken from WMF website:

Tuna sleeps on the sidewalk across the street from one of Kolkata’s (formerly Calcutta, India) largest outdoor markets. He spends his days outside the Government Art College.

Tuna carries all he owns in a bag or tied up in a blanket. He usually has some old notebooks or a newspaper completely filled with sketches and drawings. Sometimes he has another shirt or some soap or a toothbrush, but that is about all. He often makes friends with a street dog that will follow him around and sleep with him at night on the sidewalk. A mere 96 pounds, Tuna looks like he could be about 20 years older than he is.

If you saw him on the street, you might give him some change, but most of us wouldn’t give him the time of day. Tuna is a visibly broken man. Sadness is carved into his face. His kind eyes reflect a deep sense of the tragic.

Word Made Flesh community members first met Tuna in 1995, but it wasn’t until a few years later that we actually got to know him. Over the past decade, many WMF community members have given themselves to a deeper relationship with Tuna.

Getting to know Tuna hasn’t been easy. For the most part, Tuna lives in his own world, and trying to tap into it is as difficult a task as any. When someone is able to make a tangible connection with him, it’s short-lived and easily interrupted by the slightest of distractions.

People who live and work in the area where Tuna spends most of his time have filled in some of the mysterious gaps about his past. They say that Tuna was a very talented and successful art student until something terrible happened to his brother. Whatever that crisis was, it was so traumatic that Tuna broke under the burden of it and went to the streets. He has never been the same since and it seems very unlikely that he will ever be the same again.

Most of our interactions with Tuna happen over a meal at Khalsa’s, a little “Northwestern Frontier Restaurant” run by a kind Punjabi family. Over the years, the WMF community has contributed to a running tab allowing Tuna to eat there as often as he’d like — for most of us not a big deal, but for a homeless man it’s been an answer to his prayers.

But Tuna doesn’t like to eat alone. So, sadly, he often goes without meals while he waits patiently on the streets, looking for a friend to join him for lunch. Though he expects you to pay for it, he is not looking for a handout. He is looking for an opportunity to be known and accepted over a cup of sweet milk tea (with lots and lots of sugar) or a plate of fish curry.

When he sees a friend, he will shout out their name and come running. He immediately asks to be taken to lunch or at least for a cup of tea. A friend once asked him if he had already had a cup of tea that morning, to which Tuna replied, “Yes. Five cups.” The friend then asked how many cups Tuna could drink in one day. After some thought, Tuna replied, “About fifty.”

Tuna also loves to go to see movies if someone will take him—especially if they have “good action.” Be warned, though: a movie is never enough, and ice cream is always in order once the movie has completed.

Over many meals we’ve sat with Tuna and tried to get him to talk about himself. After gentle persistence, he sometimes begins to recall things from his “old life.” In eruptions of surprising vulnerability, Tuna has said that he had three brothers and sisters. He’s said that his real name is Dipankar Pal (a typical Bengali name). He seemed to want to remember, but there was something that wouldn’t let him.

As a typical artist, Tuna is constantly drawing. And as a form of payment for the meals provided on his behalf, he loves to draw the faces of the friends with whom he eats. And nearly every one of these precious portraits are scribbled out on a slightly used Khalsa’s napkin.

As he sits down with a pen and begins to fill whatever paper he has at hand with tiny, seemingly confusing little scratches and lines that magically become the portrait of whomever he is sitting with, he shares his story bit by bit.

His napkin sketches seem to speak a truth. An artist and WMF community member once wrote after observing Tuna’s drawings, “I appreciate the vitality and the magic of drawing. In a few lines with a ball-point pen on a napkin, a human person appears. It is a record of an intimate dinner conversation. The pen is the sensitive instrument able to carry a pulse and the tender humanity of the person holding it.”

Another WMF staff member reflected on his own portrait Tuna had drawn: “A friend recently penned a picture of me on a napkin as we shared lunch together. What he created conjured up many of these thoughts in a moment of hopefulness. His crooked lines and scribbles provided a portrait that depicted much more than myself. It helped me to see, with new eyes, the humanity that has been gifted to us.”

The napkins we walk away with are a tangible reminder that, although Tuna is poor and we have come to serve Jesus among the poor, we receive so much from him—namely an invitation to be known and accepted.

Being friends with Tuna has been transformational for the entire WMF community. It has challenged us to move from a mentality of programmed ministry to one of relationship.

For so long, many of us have perpetuated a mentality that has been one of ministering to the poor as objects and recipients of compassion and charity. But Tuna has reminded us of our need to include those who are poor in our lives through intimate relationships — not to see those who are poor as people we “minister to,” but those we identify with.

Being in relationship with Tuna has allowed us to move from donor to receptor. When we view him as a person with intrinsic dignity that points to his proper identity, we receive tremendous gifts from him. In our efforts and prayers to help “liberate” Tuna from his physical, emotional and spiritual poverty, we have found ourselves being “liberated” by his presence in the life of our community. Though we had hoped to give to Tuna, he always seemed to give us more.

As a tribute to Tuna, we have created this t-shirt:

Let this shirt be a challenge to every person who wears it to seek out relationships with those the world sees as unimportant. For it is those who seemingly have nothing to give who will give us the most. In seeking to love God, we must follow God’s children — those who are weak, those who are vulnerable — with an expression of that love embodied through voices reminding us to keep our love pure.

Tuna’s story is unfinished. It’s a restless reminder of process and longing. Though he’s been offered all forms of assistance, he opts to stay on the streets and live on his terms. As strange as it might sound to others, he has his rhythm of life.

What’s unresolved in his life is painful for him and painful to many of his friends. In our relationship with Tuna, we are reminded that when we befriend people who are poor it is not our job to save them, but to love them.

WMF community member Matt Ammerman wrote the following song for and about Tuna. May it invite us to love more purely. May it challenge us to embody the answers to the prayers we pray. And may it be a prayer answered for our dear friend.

“Don’t Let Me Eat Alone”

He put his paintbrushes away for a few
The masterpiece become a fool
He likes painting people he will never know
They are high and he is low

He draws my portrait and through confusing lines
I see my face yeah it is mine

I go to bed; the subject is for me so light
But for you its very, very cold tonight

I like crows man and I read Edgar Allen Poe
‘Cause he’s a poet don’t you know
He took it fast, let’s take it slow
And he said
I never read any of Poe
So he’s a poet, I guess you’d know
I don’t think so good and I speak kinda slow
I never did read that much, but man I’d like a bite of lunch
Don’t make me eat alone
Do I ask of you too much?

I guess I could put down my book for a while
Just to enjoy your crooked smile
The pages don’t give me the same sort of effect
‘Cause I like your face and your dialect

And I want to know just who you are
But your words evade like covered stars
You don’t deserve this life you live
To be the joke of some street kid
If I met this devil in your head
I’d push him down till he was dead
It’s a tragedy and it’s killing me
This daily mental killing spree

Hey, if I could help you
I’d really love to
Yeah if I could help you
I’d really love to

I never read any of Poe
So he’s a poet I guess you’d know
But I don’t think so good and I speak kinda slow
I never did read that much, but man I’d like a bite of lunch
Don’t let me eat alone
Do I ask of you too much?

A percentage of the sales from this limited-run shirt will go to cover Tuna’s Khalsa’s tab. An abbreviated version of this story is printed inside the shirt.

Tuna’s art and story are used with his consent. Lyrics from Matt Ammerman’s song are also used with permission.

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playtime communion

I wrote this for a WMF update letter a few months ago:

His eyes bear the weight of a lifetime: a lifetime of neglect and of abuse and of a million unmet longings to be noticed.  My eyes are fixed on his bony, 11-year-old body as he bounds toward me, his crooked smile bringing the slightest relief to those tired eyes.  He holds out his hand, long and skinny, in greeting, and we rehearse the handshake he’s taught me so many times—the one I can’t ever seem to get right.  At least today he laughs at me.

It is late May, and the children are restless.  The climbing temperatures and promises of summer vacation make homework time impossible, and so we go outside to play.  Alex*, the one whose eyes call out to me, grabs a tennis ball and tosses it in the air.  We play catch for a few minutes until we see another group of kids forming a circle for volleyball.  I ask him if he wants to play with the others, and he nods, but in a strangely reluctant way.  We hit the ball around for a minute until it is sent in Alex’s direction for the first time.  He looks up, sees it coming and then hesitates—long enough for the ball to nail him right in the face.  The other kids, like the normal kids they are, immediately start laughing and throwing arrows with their words right into his chest.  He turns and runs.  I follow.  I call his name, and he momentarily looks over his shoulder, tears streaming out of those sad eyes.  I pause, and he dashes behind the school building, fleeing from all of the things that hurt inside of him: the words of the other children, yes, but also all of those years of neglect.  Those years of never knowing that he is loved.

In a few minutes Alex reappears on the other side of the school and takes a seat on the steps.  His eyes are dry and sagging and stuck to the asphalt.  I try in vain to start a conversation with him, realizing quickly that he needs space.  There are several pieces of chalk on the steps, and he takes one, slowly rubbing it between those long fingers.

And I remember that he loves to draw.  I remember the way, just a few days ago, he excitedly showed me the notebook where he keeps all his sketches: his dreams and feelings and hopes for what could be.  I remember the way he gave me one of those drawings, the way he wanted me to have something created just by him.  And now he grasps the chalk more firmly and leans that bony frame of his toward the ground.  I am silent.

He begins slowly, a line here and there as his feelings begin to take shape.  I am not sure what he is drawing at first, and when I finally ask, his first words since being hit with the ball, formed quite matter-of-factly, are “a home.”

I am struck by the simplicity of his longing and suddenly find myself in Alex’s pain.  Isn’t that what we all hope for?  A home.  A place of security, of love, of stability.  A place where we know we won’t be abandoned, where we know that we are accepted as we are.  Home is a place where we can completely miss a volleyball pass and then turn cartwheels because it doesn’t matter.

Since that day in May I have grown closer to Alex.  Sometimes we play and enjoy each other and are free.  Other times we are angry and violent and completely out of control.  These wounds are not easily healed.  But I continue to choose to be present to him, to see him as he is and to pray.  And maybe he can see me as I am, too.  I realize that we are on this journey toward home together, two people whose dignity got a little bruised along the way.  And as we slowly learn to make our bruises visible to each other, whether they’re from the smack of a playground ball or the hell of abandonment, we find ourselves in this playtime communion becoming more and more human.

*Alex’s name has been changed for his protection.

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about a suit

I’ve been thinking lately about how much I like to write and about the release and healing I experience after just a few hours of unloading the week’s experiences on paper.  How many Saturday mornings have I spent in pajamas buzzing on my third cup of coffee, bathing in a Mahler symphony and carefully shaping thoughts and memories and ideas with my fingers?  I keep most of my writing hidden away in my computer in a folder called “personal,” but I am becoming aware that I won’t grow as a writer until I start taking risks and getting some of my stuff out there.  So here is my first offering, some thoughts that I wrote on March 7, 2010.  The context of this piece is a modern shopping mall in Chisinau called Malldova where I was searching for a suit to wear to my friend Andrew’s wedding, a suit which I did eventually purchase, which I did wear to his wedding and which I will also wear to a certain special event that will take place in just 76 days….

Walking around Malldova last night was a strangely humanizing and yet unusually disturbing experience.  There were hundreds of people out for a good time, perusing the designer clothing stores, enjoying a game of bowling or pool, sitting down with a book at Diverta or enjoying Japanese cuisine with two chopsticks in hand.  It felt so surprisingly normal: the cleanliness, the expensive and desirable clothing, the families out together on a Saturday night.  An echo from my past, these surroundings offered a peculiarly welcoming sense of comfort.  Browsing the Apple store—a replica of the Apple store in Nashville–felt so familiar, so ordinary.

But in the back of my mind were haunting images.  The children we met on Wednesday in a village outside of Chisinau are just a few kilometers away, living in devastating poverty, not knowing what the future holds for them.  While the wealthy peruse the shelves of Fourschette supermarket and choose a pair of designer Levi’s, these children cry out for justice, for an ear to hear them, for an embrace to assure them that they are not forgotten.

In that moment it was so easy to be overwhelmed by the disparity in Moldova, by the richest of the rich living next to and among the poorest of the poor.  The contrast seemed too great, too vast to reconcile.  But then I realized that our world really is so small.  Is the distance of 30 kilometers that separates Malldova from the village we visited Wednesday so much less than the distance that separates Cool Springs, Tennessee from a village with no clean water in Africa?  We’re all so interconnected, aren’t we?

I realized again yesterday that I am wealthy, that I like nice things and that I experience a consoling familiarity when I am among the rich.  I love drowning in the scent of a coffee shop and sporting nice clothing and losing myself for hours in any bookstore.  But this familiarity that embraces me is also agonizing and particularly disturbing.  I barely slept last night as I thought about the $300 I intend to spend on an Italian suit.  I say that I want to live in solidarity with the poor, and yet I sincerely think that I am just kidding myself.

Sure, I have made concrete changes in my life recently in my pursuit of simplicity.  I don’t have a car, I strictly limit my monthly food budget and my salary is only a tiny fraction of what it used to be.  But I still have a US passport, a credit card and a support account that allows me to reimburse such “necessities” as books and a laptop computer and international plane tickets.

As always, I return again to the ideals of justice and equality.  Is it wrong to eat at a nice restaurant or to own a $300 suit?  No, not necessarily.  But how do I make these kinds of decisions with the knowledge that there are literally thousands of people who will die today because they have no access to clean water or to basic medical care?  Why is it that an hour in a coffee shop or browsing a mall seems so life-giving to me?  Will I ever be found among the poor, in solidarity?  Or will I always be the oppressor?  Can I buy this suit with the full knowledge that the poor are in our midst, right here, crying out for justice?  What is my response to their cry?  What am I doing to fight for equality and peace and new creation?  Or am I just perpetuating the brokenness of the world into which I was born?

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rachmaninoff

cello sonata in g minor, op. 19, tonight in chisinau!

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