I serve a church in the downtown section of a small city. City leaders are working hard to spiff up the downtown. A retro theater from the 1930’s has been refurbished, restaurants are opening and artists are moving in.
In short the community is being rediscovered as a place to live and relax. Just a few blocks from the ocean we are attractive to tourists. We are fostering community development that is sustainable, that attracts a critical mass of people who will spend money.
In the midst of this carefully crafted image is a neighbor I’ll call Bryce. He’s a character that defies expectations. Bryce is a street person who lives in alleys, in the woods and occasionally on a friends couch. His belongings are kept in a shopping cart. This in itself isn’t unusual. Cities large and small have neighbors who struggle due to economics or mental health issues or addiction or a combination. Such neighbors are familiar. Easy to look and walk past.
But Bryce is different. He refuses to blend into the background. Bryce wrestles with a variety of mental health issues. On occasion his behavior is belligerent. But those times are the exception.
What makes Bryce stand out is his love of beauty. With an inability to differentiate boundaries he is apt to commandeer a flat of flowers and plant them in front of the Fire Station.
It’s not uncommon to see mini parks emerge at traffic roundabouts festooned with American flags, trinkets, tinsel and flowers. All Bryce’s work.
Where he gets his treasurers is anyone’s guess. A police officer with a smile told me of Bryce walking into the station with freshly baked cookies. He offered the cookies with words of thanks to the officers for treating him with such kindness. Later it was discovered that the cookies had been taken from a local bakery when a worker had turned his back.
This is Bryce. A neighbor who functions on a different frequency. A neighbor who often amuses and confounds those he crosses paths with. It’s hard to be too angry with such a person. But not impossible. One lady I met was furious at the mess he made by throwing bread to the birds in the local park.
Some consider Bryce to be a fool. People avoid him or make fun of him. Yet fools have a purpose. The fool serves as a mirror to our own character, the person we strive to be.
Jesus often took on the role of the fool, the poor, oppressed, unlovely, unlovable. He said: ‘Whoever shows compassion and kindness to one such as these, shows kindness to me. For these fools, these broken ones, these deemed untouchable…these are my family.’ (paraphrase of Matthew 25: 31-46).
Bryce is a gift. A frustrating gift on occasion but a gift nonetheless. He invites us to bring beauty into places we wouldn’t think of. He invites us to question our own carefully constructed boundaries. He offers us the choice to include or exclude.
Bryce in his irrepressible way says: ‘I belong. I too have a place in this community’.
Bryce knows my name. He always greets me with a smile. And sometimes with a warm cookie or fresh flowers…which have come from God knows where.