It is dark. Rain falls soft and visible from beneath the streetlights. Heard faintly in the cacophony of the night is a homeless man yelling something into the air. Something indeterminate. Unsettling. Avoidingly, nervously, people walk past.
Through the glass windows of a Mexican restaurant, I am waiting for him to arrive.
He comes in, late, carrying the rain on his shoulders, on his yellow jacket. Seeing each other, we embrace. “Let me get you something to eat,” I say. Es un juego cerca. There is a fútbol game playing on an old TV perched in the back corner of the restaurant. It’s a close game, we hear. By the TV is a man eating a burrito and looking at his cell phone.
At the register, Robert orders a cherry Pellegrino. He says he’s already eaten. So, I order a cherry Pellegrino, too, and then we sit down across from one another to talk about God.
I met Robert Bone over a year ago. I happened by him on a walk. In front of a grocery store in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, he was holding a cardboard sign. In red ink, the sign had a list of grocery items he needed: milk, tea, eggs, potatoes, and chicken. And soap. At his feet was a small radio. Through the speakers came the distinct, visceral sound of conservative talk radio.
I went inside the grocery store and bought Robert milk and tea. It was not altruism. For the past two years I have been doing an ethnographic study on the spiritual lives of people experiencing homelessness. With the milk and tea, I hoped to spark a conversation and gather data. Milk and tea, it turned out, however, weren’t needed. Robert chided me for baiting him and said he really values just being able to talk to someone. He said he had recently been placed in permanent housing but that he’d be happy to share his experience being homeless.
The details of Robert’s life on the street will not surprise you. He slept in shelters and in doorways. Robert ate food at soup kitchens. He bathed rarely, always had the same dirty clothes on, and he smelt bad. Life was particularly miserable when it was cold and rainy. And it was never really safe.
On the streets, Robert served heroin like a god. It ruled his life. When he prayed he prayed for his addiction to go away. God, please help me not shoot up. God, please take this addiction from me. The prayer played in his mind and through his body like a broken record. Even when a needle pierced his neck.
The most miserable part of being homeless, Robert told me, wasn’t the weather. It wasn’t his addiction to heroin. He said it wasn’t sleeping poorly or smelling badly or even the perpetual sense of danger. He said it was the alienation.
in the darkness
and wait there. Be there.
~Denise Levertov, from “Staying Alive,” Making Peace (2006)
Early in the morning on Wednesday, November 9, 2016, Donald J. Trump officially won the race for president of the United States of America. By nightfall his victory had possessed liberal consciousness like a demon. For the past year, liberals have been trying to expel this demon by explaining it. If the answers can be made clear, and explained, it assumes, the problem may go away. Central to the exorcism is the question of who Trump voters are and how they can be converted.
A number of credible theories circulate in popular discourse. One is endemic sexism. Despite the progress that has been made on women’s rights, this theory suggests, still too many people do not think a woman is fit to be president. The glass ceiling is real and has not been broken. This is a thesis in Hillary Clinton’s recent book, What Happened. Another theory is endemic racism. This theory, most eloquently argued by Ta Nehisi Coates, suggests that Trump rode to victory on the raw and enraged currents of white nationalism, which he himself shepherded. A third theory is endemic alienation. This theory, argued by David Brooks among others, suggests that a lot of people are experiencing profound alienation. These people elected Trump because he promised that he’d bring back their jobs and their Jesus.
The list could go on. All of these popular theories are valid, merit serious reflection, and are more complex than I have let on. Describing them, however, is not the point of this article. Instead, the point of this article is to offer two propositions to the Christian church.
The first proposition is this: each theory in circulation about who Trump voters are renders a particular view of them. It says that, consciously or not, the Trump voter is possibly sexist, racist, or unwittingly alienated. The second proposition: the Christian cannot be seduced into believing that any of them are ultimately true. In fact, the Christian, in order to be Christian in the world today, must create space for them to become, at least temporarily, untrue. What we need today, in order to continue Jesus’ work of reconciliation through the power of the Holy Spirit, are sacred spaces that enable us to practice transcendence and be in darkness together.
“While you were living on the streets, Robert, did you have a sacred space?” He takes a sip of his cherry Pellegrino. The rain on his shoulders has dried. “Number 43,” the cashier calls out to someone, telling them that their food is ready. “No,” he says. “There was no place sacred. No place safe. Still isn’t.”
Earlier, Robert told me he is a Christian. So I press the question. “How about the church? Didn’t you ever go to church and experience that as a sacred space?”
“Not even the church,” he says. He had tried church. Happily, he found one that accepted him as a gay man, but he later felt ostracized when people found out about his outspoken support for Donald Trump.
“That must be so hard,” I say. Robert leans close to me. We are face to face. He touches my hand. “Paul,” he says, “This is sacred space.”
In the fourteenth century, Meister Eckhart prayed that God would free him of God. He was not praying to be driven away from God. To the contrary, he was praying to become closer to God. What Eckhart taught, as many mystics throughout history have, is that our language cannot contain the living God. Language and God are not the same thing and sometimes our language about God can actually lead us away from God.
The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas made a similar point about the power of how we think about other people. Before the face of another person, he wrote, is an infinite distance. This distance cannot be stretched by our thoughts. When we try to contain another person in our thoughts, we do violence to who they really are. And that prevents the possibility of authentic, ethical relationships.
What does it mean to be a Christian in the world today? It means now what it has meant for two millennia: practicing hospitality by opening sacred space for the other. But what does that mean? What does it mean to practice hospitality and open sacred space for the other? Among other things, it means creating space—in ourselves, our ministries, and our churches—for people to suspend their immanent identities, practice their transcendence, and simply be with one another in what an anonymous medieval author calls “clouds of unknowing.” With Eckhart, we might pray today to be free from one another: not to be driven further apart but to become closer. For a church divided by political party is as much a caricature of its true self as one divided by race.
To the liberal Christian church in America, Robert is different. His difference presents a challenge. Do we have space for people like him in our churches? If not, are we willing to create them?
Shortly after we met over cherry Pellegrino, I received a series of text messages from Robert. They concerned me. In the first message, he said that I am an answer to his prayers. And he thanked me for being so awesome. In the second message, he promised to seek justice against me if I ever violate his trust. He said my lips better be sealed. In the third message, he said sorry: the last message, he said, was meant for his case manager, not for me. Either way, I began to wonder how I might be alive in Robert’s own mind, which is beset with challenges stemming from decades of drug addiction and trauma, and whether I am safe there or not. Whether I am safe here or not. I do not have the answer to that question. But I am compelled to remain.