I’m not sure where to begin, which on this night probably means that I shouldn’t begin anywhere. I’m just a few days into a two week “renewal” leave (ie…lots of napping and praying) and as usual, I’m not getting a whole lot of an opportunity to rest. Currently, it is almost 10pm on a Saturday night and I have been hit with an absolute barrage for the last few hours. From an alleged horrific event in a child’s life that just absolutely turned my stomach to another stomach turning event in the life of a member to the news that we have lost “Neil”.
I know that you do not know “Neil” and that’s okay. I don’t think many did or cared to for that matter. Neil was one of the first people I met in the ‘hood. He had seen me carrying stuff in and out of the church and had asked if we were interested in hiring a handyman. I talked with Neil that day from a distance of only a couple of feet. Neil’s face was covered with the tell-tale open wounds of a meth addict from digging at invisible bugs. Many of the wounds oozed; all of them were raw and angry. Neil had long hair, not unlike myself, and a beard, giving him a Jesus like appearance.
Neil should have been a hard person to talk to, his wounds difficult to stomach. But what I noticed about Neil; I mean, what I really noticed about Neil were his eyes. He had eyes that could only be described as gentle and kind. There was a good soul in there. Neil became something of a favorite of myself and my team around the neighborhood. We always took the time to talk to him and to invite him in. I think everyone else saw in him the things that I did.
We see and deal with a lot of bad stuff in our ministry. As my friend and colleague from another church mentioned just this morning as he introduced me to his leadership retreat, “Corey has stories that will curl your hair.” After I finished my talk to the assembled leadership, one of the members who I have become friendly with over the past several months came up to me, “I’m going to come back down there soon. My husband says that I can’t go alone or after dark, but I’m coming back down.”
My team and I are very good in these moments and these times. We dive in, we love, and we try to disciple. We truly don’t care what you look like, smell like, or believe. The plight of the forgotten and the invisible, the unwanted; these are the stories of our people.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many people we encounter that whether they come or go, no one knows and no one cares. Think about that for a second. So isolated, so alone in the world, that you exist as little more than a taker of space. That person you breeze past in the grocery store? That person you spy out of the corner of your eye in the gas station parking lot? The nameless and faceless people you see walking on the street? You know what? They are neither nameless or faceless, they are human beings of divine worth, people that this Lord and Savior we all purport to follow found precious enough to die for. They have names and they have stories. They have feelings; hopes, desires, fears, and memories of better times. Some of them even remember people who once loved them. What so many of them have in common is that none of them wanted the situation in which they now find themselves. This was not what they had hoped for, this was not their happy ending.
“Neil” lived with his mother and his brother “Steve” a half block from the church. We would see them often; all three suffering from the same affliction. We would give food to Neil’s mom and we would sit with Steve during his breaks with reality; we have a ton of Steve stories.
Neil on the other hand was the one that really connected with us; there was something there, a spark that hadn’t yet been snuffed out. He would always stop by the church when he saw us there; sometimes trying to sell us stuff he had found in someone’s garbage, no doubt for drug money. Other times he would ask us if we were hiring. While others, most of the time, he was just happy that people were talking to him like a human being.
I have three very distinct stories of Neil that rise above all the others. The first was the first time we actually got him to spend some time on the church property. He was always okay with chatting with us, but to actually come to the church for an event? That was too much, it made him nervous.
Finally, one Sunday afternoon, we were having one of our neighborhood cookouts that we do during the summer and we finally convinced him to come and join us. I remember a couple of things about these early moments. The first is that his sores were worse than usual. He had one in particular on his cheek, just above the corner of his mouth that looked as if he scratched it one more time you’d see the teeth behind it. The second memory is that as he stepped onto the grass of the front yard of the church, he reminded me of a scared child. He was nervous, his eyes darted around wildly, he looked as if he were walking on legs of rubber. And then he met Trudy, one of our team members. As we all did at one time, Neil took an instant shine to Trudy. For the next forty-five minutes he talked nonstop about his grandparents and his little cousins; he couldn’t stop himself. It really was as if some buried spring within him had suddenly burst back to life; he was remembering, “I matter, I am not alone, I love.” This is one of my favorite memories of my time in South Louisville.
My second Neil story was one of the hardest fits of laughter I’ve ever had. Rickelle and I were riding into the neighborhood early one morning and we had turned in on the street near the liquor store. I immediately spied Neil, who had a look on his face that told me he meant some sort of business. We pulled up alongside him on the corner; he was oblivious to us. I noticed that clutched in his hand was a grocery bag that barely covered a brand new box of Lucky Charms cereal. Without warning, Neil exploded in a dead sprint with his box of cereal. Seconds later, his mother (a large woman) exploded out of the liquor, stumbling down the steps before she broke into a not quite as impressive sprint (stumble) after Neil. She was screaming a litany of incomprehensible curses after Neil. I looked at Rickelle and just absolutely lost it. I couldn’t quit laughing. I had no idea what in the hell I had I just seen, but it was quite possibly the funniest thing I had ever witnessed and somehow, it was just so our neighborhood.
We drove down Denmark, tears streaming down my face and there is Neil. Running with the steely determination and concentration of an Olympic sprinter, his arms pumping rhythmically up and down, that box of Lucky Charms his prize. In the rearview mirror, Neil’s mom was now at a “brisk” walk, her fist pumping wildly in the air, her hair askew.
My final Neil story is one of the most disturbing stories I’ve had. We were still during our preview phase of Heathen Church and I was in my office just minutes before I was to preach, when I heard a scream outside. I ran outdoors to see an ambulance near Neil’s, but not at Neil’s; it was across the street. I quickly took off towards the ambulance when I saw a “familiar” come out of the alley. He was stunned, not entirely there.
“She dead! She’s dead! She’s fucking dead!” The young man screamed to no one in particular. I continued forward to meet him, he had been oblivious to my presence.
“Who’s dead?” I asked, standing in front of him, impeding his progress.
“My girl! She shot up too much! She’s dead!” He threw his arms in the air to grab his head when I noticed blood dripping down his arm.
“Let me see your arm, you’re bleeding.” He held his arm out; he looked to have ripped his skin where he had been shooting up with his girl.
“She’s dead man, she’s dead.” And he took off down the street. (She was dead, but unbeknownst to him, she had been resuscitated.)
Moments later, Neil came stumbling out of the alley. His eyes were locked straight ahead as he shambled towards and then past the church. I called out to him, even yelling at him at one point; I couldn’t even get a blink out of him. Neil wasn’t there.
Tonight, in the barrage of crazy that has come to define us, I received word that Neil had died of a drug overdose in that same alley; alone. So often in our neighborhood, people disappear in the night. One day they’re there, the next they’re not. No phone call, no note, no forwarding address, no trace. People do not come to the South End to stay. We hadn’t seen Neil since the Kentucky Derby last year.
It breaks my heart that Neil died of what we knew would eventually get him. However, it breaks my heart even more that he died alone. No one deserves that, especially him. He was one of ours.