Thursday, April 30, 2009


Last week I was in Frostproof, Florida, enjoying the sun and a sojourn on Silver Lake where sunsets are rightfully billed as the most glorious in the U.S. I spent a lot of time “taking my leisure,” but ventured out to a Rotary Club meeting with Vickie Sullivan’s sister on one occasion, and another day we visited a plant nursery where research is being done on citrus. However, a customary Sunday afternoon at the movies proved to be the most cogent day of the visit. We saw the movie “The Soloist,” and if you haven’t viewed it, I’d strongly recommend that you take time to see it at your local theatre or rent it.

The movie is a true story about an L.A. columnist (played by Robert Downey Jr.) who meets a homeless schizophrenic musician (played by Jamie Fox), a former student at Juilliard Music Academy. The homeless man sits on the streets of L.A. playing Beethoven on a two stringed violin. The columnist and the musician become friends, the story unfolding in a stark, unsentimental way that gives it poignant authenticity. This simple story suggests to viewers that much is asked of us when we encounter the mentally ill who live on the streets in major cities everywhere in the U.S. since the time that legislation was passed regarding institutionalization of the insane. The result of that legislation has been that the mentally ill now reside in shelters or in jail cells, rather than in institutions dedicated to care and medical help for them.

Perhaps there are many of us who have at least one relative who is like the character, Nathaniel Ayers, in “The Soloist,” a person with whom we can’t connect and who’s unwilling to be helped so that his humanity isn’t so difficult to accept, but this story provides some hope for victims who are poor in mind and spirit. I won’t reveal the plot but I do suggest that you see it even if you aren’t an advocate of social reform and haven’t joined any campaign against unemployment, poverty, and the homeless. It poses some relevant questions about the disenfranchised and our response to them –some of those “what would Jesus do?” type questions. One question could be if we really believe the words in Ephesians, “… [they are] no longer strangers and aliens, but…members of the household of God.”

“The Soloist” sent me to my bookshelf where I re-read Archbishop William Temple’s vision of a fairer society which could be built only on moral foundations with all individuals recognizing their duty to help others. He was deeply interested in a view of morality that wasn’t preoccupied with sexuality but which was relevant to the numerous social problems facing us. Temple espoused in “Citizen and Churchman” that the vocation of a Christian was to dedicate himself in the power of love to the establishment of justice. “The Soloist” also brought to mind a theology emphasized by Harold T. Lewis in “Christian Social Witness,” in which he explains that we must have grounding in an incarnational understanding of the universe.

I hasten to add the caveat that for many families, as in my own, the willingness to help these homeless relatives is not enough and, like Nathaniel Ayers, medical help is more than often refused by the victims, and the street becomes home as a matter of choice – they don’t want to be treated or helped and abhor the confinement and restrictions of a saner life. It’s truly a Catch 22 situation, and the movie provides an answer only in the musician’s willingness to accept a friend and his help so that he can explore the meaning of his life and break out of the narcissistic pattern of living, finally connecting with another human being.

Last year in early Spring, I received an e-mail from a Religious whose friend is director of a homeless shelter in Chattanooga. The e-mail detailed a hard day at this shelter, a story about dangers that beset the homeless. The report from this friend provoked the following poem:


Snow falls while we live in warmth,
outside, the dense silence of a cold Spring,

inside, the complacency of blessings.

A message arrives in the silence,
pleas to offer up prayers for Dana,

Dana who visited a homeless shelter Saturday,
wearing a white dress,

soft like a confirmation gown.

Brother Ron, admiring her unusual finery,
received a hug, her self-esteem restored,

and when he left his work,
she lingered in front,

embracing the shelter’s welcome she knew so well.

He asked about afternoon plans,
the beautiful Spring day of her white dress,

A picnic, she said, and maybe she’d call her daddy
to see if she could go home again.

Sunday morning they found her,
the white dress stained with blood,

murdered in Chattanooga’s incautious Spring.
Brother Ron says, “no one knows at sunrise

how this day’s going to end,
so pray for Dana in her blood-stained dress”…

And, I might add,
for those who live in indoor complacency.