It’s hard not to notice the theme of the other in recent news: executive orders, refugees and migrants, protests, racial tension within our country, and the countless occurrences of violence. Even if it doesn’t paint an overt struggle, it creates a separation between us and the other.
Thankfully, I’m Cajun. So when my faith challenges me to mercy—to encounter and love the other—I’m good. At least that’s what I thought until recently.
What is a Cajun, you ask? Think Southern Louisiana, swamps, crawfish boils, good food, hospitality, kindness, and a sort of revelry in joy including boucheries, zydeco, fais do dos, and Mardi Gras—Laissez les bon temps rouler! Hospitality and kindness are hardwired cultural values. Many times I’ve walked into a house for a short visit, been offered food, declined the offer, and yet somehow ended up with a bowl of gumbo in my hand anyway. I have had extensive experience in receiving kindness and hospitality, and I’d like to think that I’ve a fair bit of experience offering it as well.
I brought that experience to my work last year with men and women struggling with addiction and homelessness. Before I began, I could meticulously describe the economic policies and occurrences which might render someone homeless. I had studied enough of addiction to list off the failed structures in a person’s life which might force them onto the street. I knew the statistics, figures, and trends, but not the other.
My work at the center began with a somewhat awkward start. I wanted to do something to help these people, but that wasn’t where their need was. I thought in doing, that I could fix them and fix their problems. I tried defaulting to my Cajun roots—offering hospitality and kindness. It was a man named Chris who messed up my plan:
“Chris, how is your day going?” I’d politely ask. He’d respond, “Fine.”
Another day, I’d ask, “Chris is there anything I can get you? Need anything?” He’d reply, “Nah man, I’m OK.”
A week or two later, I asked, “Do you need anything from the center? Can I point you in some direction?” He looked at me and replied, “No, I’m fine.”
Nothing was working. Nothing I could do seemed appropriate or helpful. Nothing.
After weeks of not getting anywhere with him, I finally asked, “Chris, can I sit with you?” He looked at me and smiled somewhat suspiciously, “OK.”
When I sat down, I met a man who was exactly my age. He has two children he loves desperately. He had a hard time with work and family, which led to his dependence on substances and ended with him on the street. What I found, though, was not a failure of coping mechanisms or systems. I found a man who truly, deeply loved his children. He wanted more than anything—more than being clean or stable again—just to provide for them and to show them his love.
Kindness and hospitality were not what Chris wanted or needed. He wanted to talk about his children and his story. He wanted someone to spend time with his humanity and suffering… he wanted to spend time with our sameness.
Eventually, my work at the center transitioned into pastoral counseling. While often I worked on coping skills and evaluating systems of support, most of my work entailed simply listening to others’ stories and acknowledging their humanity.
What Chris and others needed was not stuff I could ‘do’ for them, but they wanted to be reminded that they were loved and still human after all they had been through. I needed to listen to their joys and sufferings… and, in response, offer mercy: genuine encounter and love. And here is my quick confession: mercy was a lot harder than kindness and hospitality.
What I knew of economics, addiction, or the laws didn’t mean that I understood mercy. I needed to let a face, an individual, break my heart. Chris’s life and story were much messier than just facts, and at times it was difficult just to hear some of his struggles.
I’m Cajun. I have good food, celebration, and joie de vivre flowing in my veins. I’m hardwired to be polite, kind, and hospitable—but that’s not quite mercy. Being Cajun is not enough. I am Christian, and so I’m called to more than hospitality or kindness. I have to encounter and love the other. If Christian is truly part of my identity, I should be hardwired for mercy. To sit with the other, to meet Chris and others and listen to their stories. I am called to mercy: to encounter and to love the other.