By: Dr. Grant Scarborough
“He showed me kindness. He taught me to be generous. I knew if I ever needed anything, he would be there for me.” What a great legacy. I hope people will say that about me one day. But his legacy did not start off that good. In fact, most people will remember the other legacy.
His diabetes was difficult to control. He was on insulin and poor so he could not always afford his insulin. He was also homeless, which made it difficult to keep insulin cool in the Georgia heat. He was not sure what to do, so he asked what seemed reasonable, “I live in a tent next to the river. Do you think I can keep it cool by keeping it in the river?” In all my training I never read a research study about the best way to keep insulin cool while living in a tent.
We came up with a better plan. Since his tent was nearby, he would come in weekly and we would keep his insulin cool for him. And that is exactly what he did. Over many short encounters, I learned about my friend.
He had been to prison. One note in his chart reported he was clean for 49 days. He was going to treatment five days a week. He lived in the tent city at the end of Second Avenue. “Oh, that tent city,” a light went off.
The homeless are outcasts. They, for whatever reason, mental illness, drugs, or poor decisions, are found fending for themselves. They have nowhere to return and no one to receive them. But, even the homeless desire some sense of community. They have a sense of order and you are allowed to be a part of the community of outcasts. Everyone is welcome. Well, not everyone. One group is not welcome. They are thrown out of the homeless community and forced to live together in a smaller tent city. The one that caused a light to go off in my head when he mentioned it. The sex offenders. The homeless sex offenders are the outcasts of the outcasts. They are rejected by the homeless themselves.
To be honest, sex offender’s crimes are all different and they are all wrong. They deserve punishment for their crime, there are no excuses. Maybe they should never be let out of prison and maybe they should be further outcast. This story is so hard to write because the crime is so bad. Yet, I began to like my friend.
He was so polite – always saying thank you. He was very grateful for whatever help we offered. He was not rude. He was patient when it was busy. I would almost forget from which tent city he had come from as we talked in the exam room behind closed doors. We all experienced him at different times and ways, but we all liked him.
Then late one night, a text went out to many of the staff. It was a link to an article. The title was simple, “homeless man found dead in tent.” It was our friend. The reject of rejects had died alone in his tent.
After the article, there was a comment section. People were already commenting – some nice and some not so nice. And then someone posted his mugshot in the comment section which stated “sex offender,” the comments then became even more negative. If his legacy was not bad enough in his life, it became worse in his death – smeared in paper and ink.
We were all sad. We called the sheriff department to report the next of kin, but the phone number we had did not work. We discovered he would be cremated and buried in a pauper’s grave. Our staff wanted some closure. It happens often when one of our patients die that some might go to the funeral. But there was no funeral planned for him. I called my friend who works at a mission. He told me that they have funerals for the homeless from time to time. He encouraged us to have a service so our staff could have closure and he would put the word on the street so any homeless could come that wanted to have closure as well.
“But Grant, you will have to do the eulogy.”
“What’s a euology? Why me? I have never done that before.”
“You will be fine.”
So, I prepared for my Wednesday 1:00 service – even more than my presentation about MercyMed to a church that night. I was so nervous. I knew about him, but I did not know where he was spiritually.
How do I prepare for a service? What do I say? I polled some of the staff and they said similar words – kindness and grateful.
I settled on Psalm 23, I thought it might be a familiar passage and because of the line “He leads me beside still waters” It brought back to mind him putting insulin in the Chattahoochee River. “The Lord is My Shepherd, I lack nothing.” It starts with a Shepherd. I spoke of this Great Shepherd. How the shepherd went out after His sheep.
All throughout scripture Jesus goes after the lost sheep. It is the sick that need healing, not the healthy, the good book says. Jesus hung out with the sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers so much he got a reputation. A bad reputation. He was talked about by the church leaders. The people with leprosy were themselves cast out. They were not allowed to be a part of the synagogue or even live in the city. They had to carry a bell around with them and whenever someone came near they had to ring their bell and yell “unclean!” They, too, were outcasts of outcasts because of a disease they had. This is much different from my friend who was an outcast of outcasts because of what he had done, but they, too, were unclean to the city.
The Great Shepherd makes unclean things clean. He, the clean holy one, reaches out and touches the unclean. As He touched the unclean, his holiness and perfection is not tainted. No, the unclean man is made new. The old has passed and the new has come. So, I preached that message. I told my new friends, the outcasts of outcasts, there is a great God that can make them a new creation. He makes unclean things clean. He can give them a new heart. And then we sang Amazing Grace, because we need amazing grace to clean this deep.
After singing, there was a time of sharing.
My nurse read, because she was afraid she would get too emotional. They had sat down when he picked up insulin recently. They sat and talked. He said, “everyday, I regret what I have done. It has ruined my life. There is never a day that goes by that I think about how I have ruined other people’s life and mine.”
“Do you know Jesus can forgive you?” my nurse asked.
“Do you know that Jesus loves you?”
Then my nurse closed her talk with simply saying, “I will miss him.”
Two other spoke – both from the tent city – both cried. Then, one said those words, those words of legacy from the tent city. The world knows the legacy of sexual offense, but among his people, they say, “he showed me kindness. He taught me to be generous. I knew if I ever needed anything, he would be there for me.”
The outcast of the outcasts ministering to one another. The gospel among the poorest of the poor. My friend knew Jesus, he knew he was forgiven and now he was ministering to others.
I like stories of redemption, I just do not like this one. Of all my stories I have written, this has been the most difficult to write. I have found I am uncomfortable with the depth of grace and the debts of man’s sin. Jesus’ grace extends to the worst – Jesus’ grace extends to the ugliest sin I can imagine. Sex offenders receiving grace? I am uncomfortable. I have four daughters. I have a shotgun.
MercyMed is not a homeless medical clinic. Most of our patients are the working poor. Even though our clinic is right next to the tent cities, the homeless rarely show up. They have huge trust issues. Because of their lack of trust, they hardly ever enter the clinic. I give this disclaimer, because today, a week after the funeral, late in the afternoon, a middle aged black man walked into the waiting room. We were finishing up our staff meeting. Someone was quick to say, “we are closed.” He swiftly said the name “Billy.”
He already knew Billy and saw him at the funeral. Billy walked over there first and then called me. It was a quick and brief conversation, but from the heart. “Thank you for doing that funeral for my friend. It meant a lot to me.” Then he quietly slipped out. I do not know if I will ever see him again, but I was overwhelmed by his kindness. He was so moved that he left his “comfortable” area of being an outcast to walk into the “unfamiliar” world we call normal to say thanks. I wonder if that was from the influence of my friend who passed away. I wonder if that was from the God who showed the utmost kindness. God’s kindness leads us to repentance.