A recent encounter with a teenage girl at 10pm on Van Ness Ave. had me picking up Robert Lupton's Theirs is the Kingdom. I haven't read it since living in Fresno during the summer of 2009, but it always gives me things to wrestle with. It offers challenges to truly engaging the city. This story was especially powerful for me last week and I wanted to share it with you. Enjoy.
For a long time we sat on my front porch as Kurt unburdened his soul. I listened mostly. I couldn't comprehend that in thirty short years one person could experience so much pain. Kurt spoke about the horror of finding his mother's life-less body, nude from the waist down and suspend between two utility poles. He told of the hate he felt for the men who molested her and then threw her off the roof of a tenement building. Rage had driven him for two years until he found one of the men responsible, but the torturous vengeance he extracted at gunpoint gave him no satisfaction.
In the years that followed Kurt suffered from alcoholism and drug abuse. There were months lost forever from his memory. He described the pain of having his face and jaw crushed with a baseball bat, and the constant fear of being found again by the men against whom he had turned state's evidence.
In spite of the brokenness of his life, Kurt seemed remarkably hopeful. He spoke happily of his marriage and his toddler son. He seemed motivated by his latest job and the better life it promised. Of course I would give him two dollars for his bus fare to and from work. It was only a small way of caring for a neighbor who had taken me into his confidence.
Alas, the two dollars never reached the coin drop on the bus. Kurt purchased a bottle and dropped out of sight. The familiar cycle of deceit, dependency, and failure began again. I had been used.
Kurt had been honest with me, at least in most respects. The story of his traumatized life was true. His emotions were and are real. There may even have been redemptive value in our long talk together. I hope there was. But when I realized that Kurt had a hidden story, one he carefully kept from me, I could not help feeling violated.
The affluent and the disinherited have frequent contact in the city. When impoverished people become desperate for food or a fix, satisfying that need becomes more important than anything. Pride diminishes and schemes emerge. The resources of others become their mark. Those who rob are perhaps he most desperate and daring, but those who manipulate are often the most skilled. The use of truth and half-truth, colorful descriptions, moist eyes, and urgent tones are powerful tools for eliciting compassion and dollars.
I tire of being hooked, deceived, taken from. But when I consider the safer ways of giving, the impersonal media appeal, the professional mailings that would free me from contagion and protect me from seeing the whole picture, I know I must continue touching and being touched. At least I am touched by persons with names and familiar faces. I can confront. I can express disappointment to the one who has betrayed my trust. I can be angry with or embrace the one who has taken from me.
And I can grow. I can see the conditions I place on my giving, my own subtle forms of manipulation. I am confronted with my pride that requires others to conform to my image. I see my need to control, to meter out love in exchange for the response I desire.
I will opt to be manipulated in person. For somewhere concealed in these painful interactions are the keys to my own freedom.