Last Sunday, I encountered an unusual blessing; human excrement adorning the cold morning pavement. I did not, however, receive it initially as the great blessing that it was.
As I arrived to church early Sunday morning, I noticed that our dumpster had been disturbed. This is not unusual for those of us engaged in ministry in urban contexts. I assumed that a homeless person had come and searched our dumpster for food overnight.
As I approached the dumpster in order that it might be re-secured, I noticed a single stained white sock resting on the ground. The sock was surrounded by several translucent, dial-shaped entities. A closer look revealed them to be pieces of dead skin likely peeled from a human foot. I suddenly recalled reading that homeless people walk upwards to thirteen miles a day. Undoubtedly, their feet are covered with calluses, bruises, and blisters.
Then I saw them, in the upper left-hand corner of our gated waste disposal area -- two pieces of human waste lying conspicuously upon the ground.
This unexpected encounter ushered me through a range of varied emotions. My first emotion was disgust! While well acquainted with such excrement, most notably my own, and that encountered through diaper-changing, I am not accustomed to encountering items, such as these, outside my home, lest in such a public space.
Secondly, I was frustrated! The feces could not be ignored. Though silent, its presence screamed at me! It had to be addressed. And it would have been irresponsible for me to wait for others to tend to it. I had to address this matter myself.
Thirdly, I was insulted! Who would dare defecate on someone else's property, let alone church property? Have they no respect for themselves? Have they no respect for the House of God?
With these emotions bubbling over, I entered the church. After retrieving some plastic bags, I returned and knelt down to remove the excrement. My now close encounter with the matter at hand provided me with greater insight into its former carrier. While I am no medical expert, some truths were immediately discernible through my brief observation.
On account of its discoloration, it appeared sickly and diseased. Something was obviously awry with the carrier's digestive system. It also appeared painful. Streaks of blood painted its exterior. At the risk of assigning anthropomorphic qualities to human waste, it appeared lonely and rejected. It might have gone unnoticed except for our chance encounter. I disposed of the matter, and returned to the church to prepare for worship.
That Sunday, we had a powerful day of worship in both the morning and afternoon. Confessions of faith were made, new members united with our worship community, and many left empowered to serve! After the day's services, I returned to my study to reflect on the events of the day. While there, I recalled the feces vividly from my memory. And as I did, I was first convicted, and then blessed.
Too often the church, as I did, first encounters human suffering, or the evidence of human suffering, with the wrong set of emotions. Too often the church, as I was, is quick to meet human suffering with disgust and frustration rather than compassion and service. And far too often, the church receives certain activity as an insult as opposed to what it truly is; a cry for help.
The church should never turn away from those seeking relief from the pains of life, no matter how undesirable the causation of their pain may be. When Jesus encountered ten men suffering from leprosy, he did not turn away. When Jesus encountered a woman suffering from continuous vaginal bleeding, he did not turn away. Jesus always has time for the sick, the hurting, the hungry, the poor, and the dying. Jesus desires the undesirable, the rejected, those who find themselves lying upon life's cold pavement in silence, but whose presence and suffering yet screams to be noticed.
Even in the midst of our urban setting, where we are surrounded daily by human suffering, and despite our young church's commitment to community empowerment, it was a needed and powerful reminder, at least for me, that human suffering is ever present, and that as a church, we should be ever-seeking to eliminate human suffering whenever, wherever, and however possible.
While I am not rushing towards another public encounter with human waste, on this occasion, I did ultimately find hope in this experience It became an odd consolation for me that the carrier found relief, albeit temporary, from what obviously had pained them along an undoubtedly uncomfortable journey. And I was gifted by God with the blessed opportunity to receive and dispose of it. Thus, while the person may have gone unseen, his or her suffering did not go unnoticed.
While in my study, I offered a prayer for a still unknown visitor that Sunday. I also offered a prayer for myself. I prayed to never turn away from human need and to never become detached from human suffering.
No matter how it is expressed, no matter in what form it is encountered.
I invite your prayers as well!