I spent the early hours of Saturday morning with a group of 87 homeless men and women. Several times a week, Friendship House, a local non-profit, opens the doors of First & Center Presbyterian Church to offer hospitality and winter sanctuary to the city of Wilmington’s homeless population.
My job was simple: sit down and have a chat with someone. As I scanned the room, I saw weary faces and hunched bodies, exhausted from a night spent in the cold. Some were sleeping with their heads down on tables, some were playing chess, others were reading or simply sitting in the warmth of the room. I spotted one man with a book open in front of him; he wrote feverishly in a spiral-bound notebook. A fellow writer, I thought.
I made my way to his table and asked what he was reading. As I sat down, I noticed the book was large and leather bound–a Bible open to the book of Deuteronomy. “Just reading about my people,” he said, looking up at me. A long conversation ensued.
He talked of oppression, pain, greed, poverty, and violence–the plight of his people, taken from their homeland and forced to adopt a new unkind country.
Given that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is on Monday, he asked, “What do you think of Reverend King?” He scrutinized me with narrowed eyes as he asked the question.
Searching for the right words I stuttered, “I…um…I…I think he was God’s man.” I mentioned that he would have been 84 this week; he was taken from the world too soon; I wondered at all the change he could have inspired, all we would have learned.
A smile broke the severity of my new friend’s face. “Yes, God’s man,” he said. “But he’s not gone. His spirit is still here. In you. In me. He did what God wanted him to do while he was here and his work continues.”
This man without a home talked of justice, equality, and hope–the dream of his people, long awaited. Still waiting.
As I sat in a room filled with so much humanity I thought about justice–a heavy word weighted with dignity and love on one side; struggle and perseverance on the other. Where is justice for those that sleep on the streets, shivering from the harshness of weather and life? Where is justice for the starving, the displaced, the victims, the fatherless, the abandoned?
How long must they wait?
Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” He proved that one person can shorten the arc, little by little. One person willing to listen. One person willing to stand for the truth. One person willing to offer hope. One person willing to see humanity in everyone.
After talking for over two hours about books and life, the man with the notebook and I shook hands, parting as friends. I like to think the arc bent a bit right at that moment: two strangers, different in so many ways, offering each other acceptance and seeing themselves in each other’s eyes.
How long? Not long.