“Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”

~Nelson Mandela

Maggie

[F]or the past five years, I have served at Mary’s Kitchen on Saturdays.  Steve Martinez was a homeless man that I befriended the very first day I served there.  From the beginning we became fast friends.  Over the years, various people would make light-hearted, jealous comments about how much time my friends and I would spend with him during my time at Mary’s.  He was very interesting and fun to be around.  Over the years, I watched him go through phases like making jewelry or building wooden box drums.  We became obsessive over a card game called 31 and would play it from the time I arrived at Mary’s until the time I left.  I now have a collection of birthday presents he has given to me on my birthdays.  I offered comfort and a shoulder to cry on when his mother passed away.  My friends and I baked his favorite cookies (oatmeal raisin) quite a few times and heard not so light-hearted, jealous comments from others.  I was there as he watched a butterfly flutter by him and start to weep at how beautiful it was.   I leant him an ear when he went on crazy rants about various issues (even if I happened to find myself half listening).  Through all of this, we were experiencing life together as friends, real friends.  Steve, a homeless man who lives on the Santa Ana river trail and Maggie a young girl who lives in a safe, picture perfect house in Yorba Linda, the land of gracious living.  It’s quite a remarkable, yet beautiful thing.

Within the past year, issues with his health became extreme.  He started to become so weak that it was amazing that he could even stand, let alone walk.  Most that knew Steve were bewildered by his determination to hold onto the little bit of life he had left.  We were quite honestly expecting his passing on to arrive soon.  He developed a brain tumor and his memory was deteriorating and there was a noticeable disconnect to reality.  Steve always had a slightly inappropriate way of speaking, but it was always something I could laugh about and shake off.  However, as his mind was being affected by the tumor, he was growing unbearably inappropriate.  I started to distance myself from him, but hated that I had to do that because he was and is still so important to me.  Even some of his closest homeless friends began to distance themselves from him due to his folly.

Back in December, there was one particular Saturday that stood out more than any other time I had been there.  It was a rainy day.  I have grown to hate the rain because it is hard for me to shake the thought of how bad the homeless are suffering due to rain.  They were suffering that day.  Mostly everyone I talked to that day talked about their battles with the rain, whether it was being too cold or a leak in their tent or car.  Steve came hobbling over to me supporting himself with a cane.  He was trying to explain to me that he was sleeping on the Santa Ana river trail with two tarps as his shelter from the rain.  In the midst of that explanation, he was having spasms in his hands and blanking in his train of thought.  He had missed a jacket give-a-way the week before and expressed his sadness on failure to attend this event.  I promised him I would get him a jacket and he began to cry and swore that I was his best friend.  It had been quite some time that he admitted something pleasant about our friendship.  It was so nice to be reminded that he was still appreciative of me.  Immediately I left and went to the store and picked out one of those pop-out tube tents to give to him.  I returned to Mary’s Kitchen to give it to him.  To my surprise he was upset with my choice of tent and did not seem appreciative.  This moment was extremely upsetting for me.  Not that I was upset that he didn’t like his tent, but that his brain was so impaired by his tumor that he could not control the words that came out of his mouth.  He was in pain and miserable.  I felt his pain and misery and I felt it deeply.  I believe I have the merit to say that because we were true friends.  That was the last moment I spent with Steve.  I think about this day often and it haunts me.

I left to study abroad in South Africa for the next four months.  I got an email from my dad on February 5th, informing me that Steve passed away in his sleep the night before.  Of course it is hard to find out that a friend has passed away, but I was expecting this sad reality for awhile and was able to be more accepting of his death.  The classic cliché is very true in his case; he is in a better place now.  His suffering is gone.

And the truth is, he did actually like his tent.  My fear was that he did not like his tent, so much that he would make a trade with somebody for a pack of cigarettes or something of the sort and return to sleeping under a tarp.  Somebody had told me that he was still using his tent and Steve in fact said it was a lifesaver.  My dad informed me recently that Steve passed away in that tent that I had bought for him.  After finding this out, I feel strangely at peace about the end of his life and our friendship.

During my time in Africa, I was able to process and evaluate my friendship with Steve.  At the same time, I was learning new things, which faithfully contributed to drawing conclusions about my friendship with him.  I was visiting and serving at some extremely impoverished areas.  There were houses I visited that were constructed completely of tin or mud.  The slums with these houses stretch far beyond belief.  The specific area I was in, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, has the highest concentration of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world.  HIV/AIDS spreads like wildfire in this region due to lack of education on the matter.  Like all people, the Zulu people are prideful.  A person upon discovering they are HIV positive will disregard it and spread it to others, whilst becoming really sick.  (There are many more shocking and upsetting things I discovered in the process of service in South Africa, however, I will not reveal them all in this blog for the purpose of getting to the actual point I am trying to make here.)

Many people in my group were devastated and overwhelmed at the sight of all this poverty and misfortune.  I witnessed countless crying faces that were angry with God for allowing such suffering.  They labeled the South African’s situation as hopeless.  I reacted in a different way, however.  The people who were so devastated frustrated me.  They were unable to identify the hope; it is there.  They never stopped anyone to ask if they were hopeless.  For all we know, those people could look at us and not be able to see hope for our lives, being burdened by technology and unimportant drama of everyday life.  Perspective is important in these situations.  Despite the seeming hopelessness, these people are happy.  They live in a tight knit community where they come together and conquer their real world problems with complete dependence on each other and on God.  With the understanding that God holds all these people dearly in his hands, never throwing challenges their way that they cannot handle; I was able to identify His presence.  Like Mary’s Kitchen, South Africa is a beautiful mess.  Amidst the hurting, God’s Kingdom and His will is clearly visible.  God’s presence is hope.  By stepping outside of my own perceptual filter, I was able to grasp a South African worldview; I saw hope.  Rather than pity them, I was able to really love them, share joy and Jesus.

Pity is not love.  Pity is a surface level emotion that creates a distance between you and the person you pity.  I believe my friendship with Steve made me able to respond how I did with the South Africans.  I believe God was holding Steve carefully in the palm of His hand; just like all the other homeless people at Mary’s Kitchen and just like me.  For this reason, I was able to come alongside, rather than attempt to make the gap smaller between us.

So here are some concluding thoughts on my friendship with Steve.  Steve taught me a very valuable lesson about how to handle myself in relationships with people.  He has opened my eyes and allowed me to love people deeper.  It amazes me that the most unlikely friends can come together and mutually inspire growth.  Steve has challenged me in ways I never would have been challenged and for that I am forever grateful.  I love Steve Brink Martinez.