Homeless men in Harvard Square
From Steve and Sherri Letchford: Banda Health Kenya
Steve wrote the following essay during a visit to Daniel’s college campus last October. While we are extremely proud of our kids, we are reminded that God loves us completely aside from our achievements. What a comforting bit of truth in a world that values shiny achievements and great accomplishments.
Thank you for praying for us and supporting us to serve those without status here in Kenya.
Homeless Men in Harvard Square
Surrounded by what appeared to be all of their worldly belongings, two men sat ten feet from me warming themselves in the October sun in Harvard Square. On someone or other’s statistical profile these men would have been classified as “homeless”. One meticulously polished his pair of black shoes while the other sat back and watched the steady stream of Harvard students and proud parents cross to and from the centuries-old campus off to our right.
“I think I’m going to sleep in the bus station tonight,” mused my neighbor with the gleaming black polished shoes. His friend, watching the multi-cultural parade of the great and the aspiring passing us by, concurred with an audible, “hmmff.” The anticipated cold front made the bus station sound better than sleeping outside.
Two homeless men sitting in the midst of a parade of the great and the aspiring.
I am just a dad and I was only watching them while waiting to see my boy. I wasn’t planning on having an uncomfortable conversation with my soul. And yet, maybe it was the warm fall sun, but I began to wonder why, deep in my own soul, I prefer to have people associate me with the word Harvard rather than the word Homeless. Some people call it Status, but all I know is it makes me feel better about myself, and it affects the way people see me and treat me.
That is probably why it has taken me decades to get my head around the conversation that Jesus had with his men. “Who is the greatest?” they asked him. His answer was quick and to the point, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
For almost 50 years I have assumed that Jesus was telling me that I needed to take on the sweet, innocent, trusting nature of little children (well, at least our kids and yours were sweet, innocent and trusting when they were little :)). But my 21st century western paradigm of children totally messed with my understanding of what Jesus was talking about. I desperately love my kids. I have grown up in a western culture that elevates the status of children (especially our own :)) to lofty heights. I, as much as all my American friends, love to subtly mention in my Christmas letters that my “Jessica/Thomas/Hannah/Daniel led the Under-8 Y-soccer in scoring this year.” Amazingly gifted and talented and important children they are!
So perhaps this is why I failed for so long to be changed at my core by Jesus’ “you-cannot-enter-the-kingdom-
For years it did not click that Jesus was speaking to a world that looked down on children, not one that elevated their status to untold heights. He was telling me to drop any pretense of status in the eyes of others, not encouraging me to be sweet and innocent. If I had listened more carefully with my 21st century ears, it would have sounded more like, “Unless you become like a homeless man with no status sitting in the midst of a Harvard Square, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Sitting in fall sunshine across the street from Status embodied, I identified with Peter, James and John and their friends as I reflected on my own soul. I too want to follow Jesus, but deep down I prefer people’s admiration to their condescension. I don’t mind serving others in the name of Jesus. I just hate when people treat me like a servant – talking down to me, ignoring me, or pushing me and mine around like I am a servant, a nobody. I would rather people associate me and my kids with Harvard than with being homeless.
While living in Kenya, I have watched a friend of mine, a world renowned neurosurgeon, spend the last 4 years of his very distinguished career walking amongst and serving some of the world’s poorest children, children born with grossly disfigured heads and motionless legs, children of such low status that their mothers hid them in the backs of their small houses out of shame. When I asked Leland what it was like leaving the spotlight at the top of American academia, he commented quietly, “It’s difficult, no one here knows who I am.”
But as I watched him closely, I could see that living with these children and their mothers was good for his soul, and by extension for mine as I watched him. These children did not become more like Leland; he became more like them. He, a man of great worldly status, became one of no status. As a result, his walk with Christ grew ever deeper. Leland retired three years ago at age 70 and enrolled in Princeton Seminary. I saw his wife last year as she returned for a brief visit. “Is Leland preaching anywhere while he is in school?” I asked Susan. “Oh yes,” she replied, “in several nursing homes.”
Leland, my neighbors on the wall in Harvard Square and others along my journey have taught me that I cannot see God as long as I am impressed with myself. It’s obvious to you. I’m just not sure why it took me 50 years to understand it. Waiting for a boy that I love with all my heart and am so proud of, I smiled and quietly thanked God both for the opportunities he has given our family at places like Harvard and for the reminders he has given us in places like Harvard Square, opportunities to use the gifts he has given and constant reminders to not let anything, even the seemingly irresistible lure of status, keep us from cherishing the gift above the Giver.