© Fritz Eichenberg Trust

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.

Poverty forces you toward others even when you’re unequipped, and this communion is the real wealth of Christians. I need this reminder now, because I’ve gotten back into old habits.

Sometime during this saga Roy’s father overdosed on pain pills. Because my friends and I were there, and had some personal stake in the matter, the drama fell to our limited powers of organization. We brought the skateboarding priest to the hospital so that he could administer the Anointing of the Sick but, as Roy’s father was unbaptized, we had to content ourselves with petitionary prayer. He died, and we began to arrange his funeral, booking a priest, calling funeral homes, securing obituary pages, and contacting his friends and relatives. We procured a suit for the dead man and a suit for Roy; both, Roy assured me, had never worn one.

We became, to my annoyance, “all things to all people”: chauffeurs, event-planners, and small-change fundraisers. If we had had the money, we could have paid for other people to handle Roy’s rehab and his father’s funeral. As it was, we had to get our hands dirty, asking for help with every part of the process. Cash-poor projects rely on the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, or they crumble. The desire to change the world with some practical Christian action, coupled with an objective lack of capital, forces you to gather your friends, to learn the skills you lack, to beg for the materials you cannot afford.

When I arrived at the funeral home, our priest was nowhere to be found. I was the only one besides the corpse wearing a suit. (Roy, it seemed, had managed to sell his.) I was given a wide, reverent berth. Mothers hushed their babies when I walked by. A fellow in a Steelers jersey apologized for cursing in front of the casket. I realized, with increasing horror, that for most of the attendees, the presence of a suit at a funeral indicated the presence of a preacher. The funeral-home director thanked me for being there; an interested old man asked me which seminary I atttended. I started sweating, and called the priest. “You gave me the wrong address, man. I’m on the other side of town. I’ve got to say Mass in half an hour.”

“They sort of expect something.”

“So say something.”

“Okay, like what?”

“Say a psalm.”

So I approached the casket and read a psalm. Then, feeling inspired, I read the story of Lazarus and said a few words about our hope for the Resurrection of the dead in Christ Jesus. Looking up, I saw the tears in Roy’s eyes, and I knew that my words, mostly borrowed from Scripture, had proven somewhat effective. Looking down at Roy’s father, I saw—well, I saw my friend’s necktie. We had cobbled together a suit from whatever we had. I must have pulled the tie from the back of my closet without recognizing it. I briefly considered the scandal that would ensue if I untied it from the poor fellow and stuffed it into my pocket. No, that would ruin the good name of fake preachers everywhere. So I consigned my dear friend’s favorite tie to the fires of cremation, and gave the floor to the funeral director, who pointed the mourners in the direction of the snacks. Back in the dorm, I told my Eastern Orthodox friend what had happened. He gave me a long stare and then said, “I can’t think of a better way for it to go.”

I met Roy outside a gas station a few months ago. He was happy, out of prison, married, and huge. Heroin had robbed his body of substance—it took getting clean to reveal that he is, in fact, a linebacker. I asked him what he was doing. He said he was doing a lot of fishing. In words too colorful for print, he apologized for stealing our stuff and taking advantage of us. I told him I was just glad that he was better.

I often think of that semi-stolen tie, rising with the body of his poor, addicted father. It has become an odd symbol of the value of not having. Poverty forces you toward others even when you’re unequipped, and this communion is the real wealth of Christians. I need this reminder now, because I’ve gotten back into old habits. Our penniless project has become a non-profit with tax returns and grant applications, and I’ve started waiting again—waiting for donations in order to love my neighbor. The poor in spirit know better than me. Love your neighbor now, I hear them say, and your poverty will gather a community to itself, and whatever else you build, you’ll build the kingdom of heaven.

Published in the June 15, 2018 issue: 

Marc Barnes is a co-founder of the Harmonium Project, a non-profit working to help revitalize downtown Steubenville, Ohio. He is currently studying philosophy with the Benedict XVI Centre at St. Mary’s University in Twickenham, London.

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