Warning: This poem focuses on homelessness and past trauma, but the current environment is supportive. It also contains a lot of Christian imagery. If these are touchy topics for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
"When I Was Naked"
The week after Thanksgiving,
the weather turned even colder,
mirroring the obnoxious cold snap
from the beginning of autumn.
Turq hunched his shoulders as he
walked into the wind, grateful for the coat
and hat and the soft blue-green scarf
that wrapped around his face.
When Turq came close to the church,
he saw a dark figure huddled on
the bench beside the bus stop.
This was no weather to be
sleeping outside in, at least
not without a lot better kit than
the stranger seemed to have.
Snowflakes covered the thin blanket
and the bare feet that stuck out of it.
"Hey," Turq called, but there was no response.
He shucked off his coat and draped it over
the feet. Having cold feet really sucked.
"Hey, buddy, are you okay?" Turq asked,
reaching up to shake the slumbering form.
"I know of some shelters around here, if
you need a place to stay for the night."
Under the faint layer of frost,
the form felt cold and hard.
Turq yelped and scrambled away.
"I see you've met Homeless Jesus,"
a voice said, making Turq whirl around.
Leah Crenshaw smiled at him. "He fooled you,
you, didn't he? Fooled me, too, the first time
I saw him. That's why I entered the lottery.
We're lucky to have him here for a week."
"I don't understand," Turq said.
"Homeless Jesus is a traveling statue,
cast from bronze," the pastor explained
as she picked up Turq's coat. One hand
brushed the frost away from the statue's feet,
revealing sculpted wounds that looked like
nail holes. "He encourages people
to look closer at homelessness."
"Yeah, I thought he was real -- I mean,
that a person was curled up on the bench,"
Turq said. "It made me worry about him."
"You have a good heart," Leah said as she
shook the snow off Turq's coat, then handed it
back to him. "You know, you're the first person
I've seen literally give him the coat off their back."
Turq shrugged into garment and shivered,
trying to get himself warmed up again.
"I just did what was right," he said.
"I wish more folks would see it that way,"
Leah said. "Some viewers seem to like
the statue, but we've gotten a few complaints.
Most people think about Jesus as the Son of God,
celebrated by the hosts of Heaven. They forget
that he was also an outcast, who wandered
the wilderness homeless and unwanted."
"Yeah, living rough really sucks," Turq said.
"There's a story about that in the Bible,"
said the pastor. "It's about the final judgment,
and Jesus welcomes some people but not others.
They ask why, and one of the reasons he gives is,
'When I was naked, you gave me clothing.' Then
he explains that whatever they did -- or didn't do --
for the least of his people, they did for him."
Turq felt naked, and raw inside, and
didn't know what to say about that,
so he just nodded along.
"In some places, people actually
called the cops on Homeless Jesus,
wanting to get a vagrant away from
their church," Leah added.
"Nobody should have to go through
all that," Turq said, shaking his head.
"It's hard enough being homeless,
without people picking on you."
"I agree," she said, "but sometimes, it's
nice to talk with somebody who's been there."
Then she returned to the church, leaving
Turq alone with the silent statue.
He wasn't Christian, not really,
although some foster families had
dragged all the kids to church.
He wasn't a great Buddhist either,
although he generally liked the teachings
of Buddhism and Taoism and Confucianism
better than anything else he had found.
The statue pulled at him, though,
in ways that he couldn't name.
Slowly, he sat down beside it.
"I don't know if you're even listening,"
Turq said. "I just know that it sucks to be
homeless, and always the unwanted baggage,
especially when you can do stuff that nobody else
can do. I hope you came through it all okay."
The wind shifted, dusting them both
with more snow in the gathering twilight.
"I'm not okay," Turq admitted.
He hated to say it, even though
he knew it was true. He knew that
he'd have to deal with, too, sooner or later.
He wasn't ready for that yet, not really.
For now, it was easier to talk to
a statue than to a person.
The pastor was right; it helped
to know that someone else had
been through similar hardships.
Turq still felt naked and raw,
but it wasn't as bad now, not
enough to choke off his speech.
"So much has happened to me, and
it's all so awful," Turq said, pouring out
the whole sordid story. Homeless Jesus
listened silently to the terrible tale.
It made Turq feel a little lighter.
By the time he finished talking,
it had stopped snowing.
* * *
Leah Crenshaw -- She has ruddy skin, brown eyes, and short wavy brown hair. Leah is married with two children, a son and a daughter. She knows Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. She serves at the People of Jesus Nondenominational Church and Interfaith Center in Bluehill, Missouri. She is the pastor of her own nondenominational Christian congregation, and also the chaplain for the church as an interfaith facility. Sometimes Leah also volunteers for the emergency service that covers the outlying rural areas around Bluehill, and she is available for major disasters like a tornado or flood. She wears a Celtic cross with the EMS emblem in the center circle.
Qualities: Master (+6) Chaplain, Master (+6) Nonanxious Presence, Expert (+4) Emergency Medical Technician, Expert (+4) Emotional First Aide, Expert (+4) Pastoral Counseling, Good (+2) Cozy Family Life, Good (+2) Gardening, Good (+2) Organized, Good (+2) Stamina, Good (+2) Synthesizing Ideas
Poor (-2) Nearsighted
* * *
41-43 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Out of my presence, cursed as you are, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels! For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was lonely and you never made me welcome. When I was naked you did nothing to clothe me; when I was sick and in prison you never cared about me.’
-- The Bible, Matthew 25:41-43, J.B. Phillips New Testament
Here is Turq's patched field jacket. The outside is heavy, waterproof canvas. It has a removable liner made of thick flannel backed with thermal insulating fibers. His hat is knitted from thick wool in several colors, probably a box-bottom project, and lined with fake fur. Not very dignified, and not waterproof, but it is very warm. See Turq's scarf and the instructions for making it. You can vary this between any two colors by choosing a light and a dark shade of each, plus a light and a dark shade of an intermediate color. This one uses green, teal, and blue.
(These links are very bleak.)
Homelessness is a serious problem. It is worse in the cold, as shown in this documentary about homelessness in Alaska. There are individual and collective ways to fight homelessness, of which the most important is the housing first principle. However, many homeless people avoid shelters for various practical reasons, and even refuse actual housing. Notice that Turq's primary reason is second on the list of why people don't want housing -- he doesn't feel safe there -- and another is that he simply doesn't feel ready to rejoin society full-time yet. Sometimes people need what Ansel and other folks are providing for Turq: a gradual route back without a lot of strings attached.
(The following sections are full of Christian stuff.)
Homeless Jesus is a statue, which has been reproduced and displayed in a number of places, usually near churches. The statue depicts a person completely wrapped in a blanket, except for the feet which show the telltale nail wounds. Yes, sometimes people call the cops on Jesus. You can imagine how much fun those camels are going to have trying to thread the needle into Heaven. Although I am not a Christian, it is my headcanon that Jesus watches those statues like a hawk, because that is where people are most likely to reveal their true nature. Jesus was extremely clear about his standards in this regard.
People love to worship Jesus in all his glory. They hate to be reminded that he was poor and homeless, so they look for any excuse to weasel out of that. Some people are more honest about this than others. It is often said that if Jesus were alive today, he wouldn't be welcome in his own church and probably wouldn't want to go there anyway. It's really not what he had in mind. But the People of Jesus Nondenominational Church and Interfaith Center? That one, he would be welcome in and would gladly visit.
Having determined that the Christian church isn't very close to the teachings of Christ, let's look at what Jesus himself is like as shown through his actions. Jesus was all about compassion. He understands pain, poverty, loneliness, and other human problems from personal experience. He sympathizes with outcasts because he has been one. He listens to people. He comforts people, and also urges them to help each other. By studying his interactions with people, you can learn to be more like Jesus.
Compassion is a virtue of perceiving other people's distress and acting to soothe it. On average, poor people show more compassion than rich people. When you are freezing, it's the homeless guy who is most likely to help you. There are ways to increase your compassion and teach it to other people.
The three main Chinese religions are Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Turq has explored these a little, and is intrigued, but hasn't had enough exposure to make a firm decision yet. However, it's clear that he has a very strong preference for Eastern traditions over Western ones.
It's important to teach spirituality to kids, but without forcing it on them. A multicultural approach helps when discussing religion with children. It is natural for people to explore different religions, especially during their youth. From growing up in the foster system, Turq has a wide range of positive and negative experiences with various religions. This quiz uses your current beliefs to identify congruent religions. Think mindfully when choosing a religion.
It's okay to not be okay. It's okay to admit when you're not okay, and indeed, admitting that is the first step to becoming okay. Sometimes you just need to sit with your brokenness for a while and let it be what it is. Turq's background serves him well in this regard. When you're not okay, there are things you can do to take care of yourself that may help you feel less miserable.
Terrible experiences can cause traumatic stress. Child abuse and other forms of torture tend to have especially deep and lasting effects. Understand how to cope with PTSD or help someone else through it.
Talking about trauma can be an important part of recovery, although for some people it just makes matters worse. Ideally, telling and listening to stories helps create a personal narrative, thus integrating traumatic memories into the flow of a person's life. Some programs offer this as a form of therapy. Here is a guide to trauma-informed storytelling. When someone doesn't feel ready to talk with another person yet, it may help to talk out the problem with a surrogate. In this case, the Homeless Jesus statue serves as a variation on the "empty chair" exercise.
EDIT: siliconshaman tipped me to the song "The Rebel Jesus" which is also appropriate to this context. Lyrics appear below the video frame, but you have to click to reveal them.