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A Story of Relationship and Redemption (12.22.19)

Published 12/22/2019

A few weeks ago, I was at a Rotary meeting where John Moses, the CEO of Youth Service Systems, was the speaker.  I was so impressed with it, I asked for permission to share it with you.  It is a story about the power of relationships. This story as a drama, so let me tell you the cast of characters: Jim the protagonist now deceased, a man who was homeless and stayed at our Winter Freeze Shelter; Shawna his daughter; Brenden a Federal Public Defender; and Rebecca Kiger a photojournalist.

Scene One: In 2013 or so I first met Rebecca.  She and Neal Warren, also a professional photographer, were doing a project for the Homeless Coalition called, “Share the Love”.  The poor and homeless were given the opportunity to have professional portraits of them to keep or share.  Rebecca expressed curiosity about our Winter Freeze Shelter and asked if she could visit several nights and shoot photographs of our guests with their permission.  I agreed.  She is an especially engaging woman so for the most part our guests clicked with her.  There was one man who seemed guarded, a bit resistive, and maybe a little intimidating.  That man was Jim.  Jim could certainly seem all of that if you didn’t know him.  He’s tall, probably 6’3, lanky, one eye shot out (he was a Vietnam Veteran) looked older than his late 50’s which is typical for people living outside and his complexion a little dark and careworn.

I liked Jim.  He liked conversation, topics like history and politics as well as religion, his favorites.  He would appear in my office from time to time with a question or request (never money) and would leave in short order knowing I was working but punctuate his goodbye with a bawdy joke.  He was complex man filled with optimism on one hand but fearful about his future on the streets.  The aches and pains both physical and emotional were taking a toll.   He was on supervised parole and it was revoked one summer for his failure to report his whereabouts.  I never delved in his yesterdays nor did he offer much detail.  It’s really not that important when today and tomorrow is enough to fill the plate.  Jim was sentenced to prison for two years.  Before he left I promised to stay connected and did so writing him, taking calls, and putting money on his books.  I wanted especially to keep his spiritual light glowing because he was in need of hope.  He had a Bible and would talk about different passages that were meaningful to him.  I had his worldly belongings safely stored in my office which he wanted reassurance of from time to time.

Scene Two: One late summer/early fall I received a call from a social worker from Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown intending to vet me to be Medical Power of Attorney for Jim.  At that point she couldn’t give me much information about Jim or his condition until the attending physician approved me as a MPOA. About an hour later, the social worker called back, telling me I was approved and explained that Jim had a cancerous tumor on his spine which rendered him paralyzed neck down, had serious pulmonary problems resulting in a trach and the need for constant oxygen.  Nearly every day afterwards I received a call from medical personnel of one field of medicine or another asking permission for specific procedures or treatments.  I have some medical background but always deferred to the experts.  After a week of this I decided to visit Jim and learn his wishes from his own lips.

When I arrived a Corrections Officer initially barred me from visiting since technically Jim was still a prisoner.  By newly appointed MPOA allowed me to visit.  When I saw Jim he was handcuffed to the bed rails, evidence of a system’s policy over common sense.  He looked haggard but perked up when I wakened him.  He needed one of those devices for trach victims to speak.  We had a good conversation.  He question whether he would survive this condition but in true form cracked a few jokes.

Before I left I asked if I could do anything for him and he said, “Would you find my daughter!”.  He said her name was Shawna, lived somewhere in the Pittsburgh area, they hadn’t had contact in a long time.  Of course I said yes.  At work I asked people familiar with Facebook, etc, to try to locate her with no results.  On a whim, I googled her name and read a story of a young woman federally charged behind a credit card scam of sorts.  The article implied she would be incarcerated in the Federal system.

I tried to find her on the Bureau of Prisons webpage which I have used before but to no avail.  That’s when I called Brenden, a Federal Public Defender, asking if he knew a back door in the federal prison world to get me the information I needed.  Several days later he emailed me Shawna’s lawyers contact information and her probation officer.  He said she was put on house arrest rather than incarceration and now on probation.  To my surprise on a late afternoon the probation officer returned my call and afforded me Shawna’s contact information who also returned my call in short order.

Scene Three: Shawna and I quickly made plans to meet and visit her father.  Two people that didn’t know each other searching dozens of faces at the entrance of Ruby.  I did have the foresight to have her named secondary MPOA to give her permission to visit her father. Jim was overjoyed to see her.  His conditioned had worsened since I last spoke with him.  I allowed them to visit privately that day.  We had several visits with Jim the last one to say goodbye.  The hospice chaplain was so helpful and supportive of Shawna.  He told her that even though her father appeared sleeping or unconscious hearing was often still functional.  So she held him, wept for him and maybe herself, and felt the full weight of good memories sad memories in that final goodbye.  Several days later, I decided to box all of Jim’s belongings and send them to Shawna.  I called for her address and she asked me if I had any pictures of Jim.  I replied I know this photographer named Rebecca.  I think she would be happy to connect with you and so it goes.  For several months I stayed in touch with Shawna, a hard worker, several jobs and good judgement.  I wish her a full life.

Epilogue: Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit, who has worked with the gangs of LA with his program Homeboy Industries talks about “kinship”.  He says when we go to the margins where the isolated, the disenfranchised, the demonized live and with compassion and kindness draw them to the center we are exacting the kinship Jesus talked about and lived.  He further states we will make God’s dream for us come true.  Imagine that!  I’ll say it again this story about the power of relationship, redemption of Jim with his daughter and perhaps his daughter with him, and most definitely a story about the unexpected.  Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s the expected that comes our way unnoticed.  So I asked you a question at the start is the story of “Us and Them or Us”.  A Buddhist monk once said compassion is not a relationship with wounded and healer.  It’s a relationship of equals.  Thank you.

Thank you, John Moses, for what you did and what you are doing.  May we all be a John Moses in our community.  Happy Hanukkah, Marry Christmas, and Happy New Year from me to yours.