As a poor undergraduate, I once had to borrow a tie for Easter. It was an ecumenical exchange. My dorm-mate was a newly minted member of the Eastern Orthodox body. I was Catholic, Latin Rite, and late for Mass. “Don’t lose this,” he said, handing it over. “It’s one of my favorites.”
“How would I lose it? I’ll be attached to it.”
“You lose everything.”
“I do not.”
I do. Wallets, phones, and keys, anything that can be lost. Off I went to celebrate the Resurrection. Off came the tie after Mass, looped around some obscure hanger in the back of my closet, where its existence was forgotten by all parties except God, who had other plans for it.
In fairness, these were busy days. My college friends and I had become convinced that it was time to start living our faith. We were all Christians; we were also all talk. We had all been waiting to do something for the Lord. If you had asked me what, precisely, I was waiting for, I couldn’t have told you. Now I know: I was waiting for money. Not a briefcase of cash, but some paid job, some position in ministry. I’d wager this sly heresy—that it takes money to be Christian—snuggles in the hearts of many Christians trying to practice the works of mercy under the bright sun of capitalism. Who hasn’t been filled with the desire to perform some act of love for their fellow man, only to sink back, as if slapped by an invisible hand, at the thought of the money it would take? How many ministries, charities, and projects are proposed as a brilliant means to build the kingdom of God on this aching earth—if only they could find a little funding, a few grants, and IRS approval.
The alternative to waiting is to just show up penniless and find out what, if anything, can be done. So that’s what we did. In Rust Belt Ohio, if you start looking for people to help, right away you’ll find a fair number of people addicted to painkillers and heroin. Roy—I’ll call him Roy—was one of these.
Dorothy Day famously said that “there are two things you should know about the poor: they tend to smell, and they are ungrateful.” The additional thing you should know about the poor caught in the opioid crisis is that they’ll steal your drum kit, break into your house, and get high on your couch while you’re at the library. With Roy, we made every mistake in the book. He taught us, through a breathtaking series of interactive lessons, the whole array of schemes and scams that can convert Christian kindness into dope money. To the addict, the entire universe becomes a loose assortment of saleable commodities. My friends and I were incorporated into Roy’s strange, mercantile hell. But through the haze of his addiction, we got to meet the scared, shivering image of God. Roy went to Mass with us (which freaked him out a little, because he used to skate with the priest in high school) and, while he was in prison, he had people to correspond with.