A friend and I visited hell today. Some may joke that as we left General Conference for a few hours, we actually escaped from it. Someone told me this week that he is convinced that our General Conference – something we take so seriously – is simply a cute drawing, barely decipherable, that God, as a loving parent, hangs on the fridge while exclaiming, “Look at what my children drew!”
No, the real hell is the world that so many of those we pass on the streets live in as we worship, as we protest, and as we debate what to include or not include in a book so few in our world read or care about.
With arms full of three-dozen Voodoo donuts, we took a break from the conference and hit the streets of Portland, praying for the Holy Spirit to lead us.
The number of folks living on the streets here is overwhelming. I have been to many major cities around the world and have never witnessed anything like it. We couldn’t walk a single block without finding someone excited to accept a doughnut and a smile from two goofy-looking strangers. We exchanged names with each person we met, and asked only a few simple questions: How has your day been? What are you up today? Where are you from? From those questions, along with a doughnut, flowed beautiful, yet painful, stories of deep suffering, hurt, and regret.
It was real. Like, really real… the kinds of real stuff that us church folks prefer to keep hidden from one another.
One of the friends I met shared with me her celebration of being off of Crystal Meth for two weeks. She wanted me to know that she still smoked weed, and she wanted to confess to me that she had been married multiple times… but she had survived two weeks without Meth! I could see the sense of accomplishment in her eyes as I told her how proud I was of her. She asked for a hug, and before we left she enthusiastically accepted a #GC4JC card made by child and a meal ticket to Sisters of the Road Cafe. I’ll never forget that smile or that hug.
We met another woman who invited us in. The dirt covering her skin hid any chance at an accurate guess of her age, but she seemed young. We stood by her house made of old luggage and torn blankets and we listened as she explained that she had been dropped off on the streets when she was 14 years old and told by her parents that all she would ever be was a drug addict. She paused and then looked down and confessed that, in fact, that was all she had become. Glancing at the dog laying at her feet, she told us that that dog was the only one that had ever really loved her unconditionally. We gently reminded her that there was another. She told us about her 7 year-old little girl, who had a name similar to my own daughter’s name. Her daughter had been with her on the streets before someone finally called the police and she was taken from her. As this woman talked, I began to see clearly her drugs weighing on her like chains that she did not have the power to break out of. I could feel her heartbreak and her shame.
I wish I could share each story that I was honored to receive. Each one was uniquely holy, though each also seemed to break my soul into smaller and smaller pieces. My day on the streets of Portland was a day filled with confession, with tears, with smiles, with hugs, and with many expressions of deep gratitude for someone, anyone, willing to stop and listen… and then love anyway. I learned more about Jesus’ love for me that day… probably because he was right there on the streets of Portland.