Walking with the Crucified
Deon used to come to mass almost daily with his wild eyes beaming and flashing a big, toothy grin. He especially seemed to love coming into the church in the middle of my homily and calling out at the top of his voice, "HI, FATHER!" He was clearly suffering from some form of mental illness, and there were numerous stories as to its cause. Some said that he had a breakdown, when his mother died earlier that year. Others said that a machete chop to the head as a teenager left permanent damage. Regardless of why Deon was how he was, we all squirmed uncomfortably when he was around, thinking him a "loose cannon" and never being quite sure what he would do when he walked in.
In the three-years I have lived at St. Martin de Porres parish in Belize City, I have seen our parishioners and priests alike create a welcoming space - sometimes begrudgingly, as in the case of Deon - for many of our most broken sisters and brothers, who wander the streets without family and without access to healthcare. Deon was a constant reminder to us of the great paradox at the heart of Belize: in a country filled with so much beauty, there is, at the same time, a profound brokenness and haunting sense of our powerlessness to fix it.
Perhaps that is why Deon drove me crazy: he reminded me too much of my own brokenness and powerlessness. Most days I wanted to throw him out, but I know at my core that either the church doors must open to everybody or they ought to remain closed. Yet none of us knew how to care for him, nor did we know how to control him. Sadly, I am aware that I could say the same thing for my own brokenness. Most days I want to throw it out, but the invitation is to compassion, not exclusion.
Then one morning mass during Lent, the Lord spoke unmistakably. Deon came in his usual fashion, he walked straight up to the altar, which was decorated for the season with a purple cloak and a crown of thorns. Sitting on the floor in front of the altar, Deon proceeded to place the crown of thorns on his head, beaming with a mischievous delight for all to see. I continued on with mass as though this were nothing unusual, but the message was plain as day: here was Jesus, broken and powerless, distracting and mischievous, in the guise of Deon.
Matthew 25: 34-46 is one of the most striking passages in the Gospels. Jesus identifies himself with the sick, the imprisoned, the broken, the poor. When you did it for one of the least of my brothers or sisters, you did it for me. But Jesus exhausts me. Sometimes he can be so distracting with his demands for attention or assistance! Sometimes he is loud, and sometimes he stinks of cheap rum! Sometimes I am so busy being a priest that I do not have the time or energy to respond! Deon is a reminder of the paradox at the heart of our faith: in the midst of brokenness and powerlessness - both ours and that of the world - the Crucified One calls us out.
I have not seen Deon in two-years, but I think of him often. I work as the director of an NGO in Belize City that tries to create jobs for young men and women trying to escape the cycle of poverty, gangs, and violence, called the Centre for Community Resource Development. Most days, it feels as though we are trying to squeeze water from stones. My inexperience and feelings of inadequacy in my role are always before me. Despair and fear are frequent temptations in the face of so much violence and suffering. Yet there are moments, when I can see Deon with the crown of thorns on his head, and I am reminded, as I so often need to be, that this is Jesus' kingdom, Jesus' work, and Jesus' people.
Brian Christopher SJ is the Executive Director of the Center for Community Resource Development (CCRD) in Belize City, Belize, Central America. CCRD is an NGO dedicated to community organizing and economic development in communities hit hardest by poverty and crime. www.ccrdbelize.bz or firstname.lastname@example.org