I have no idea when Clarence was born. When I met him he seemed old. He had been from Baltimore, Maryland to Richmond, Virginia to hear him tell it and been a chef in one of the finest hotels in the city. He had family somewhere in the south and owned a ruined townhouse on Clay Street. He had friends in Newtowne 20 and he knew every pastor in town.
Clarence slept on the bench in front of the church office when I met him. A thin man in stinking clothes he stood a few inches shorter than me, or he could have been hanging his head. I was frightened of this thin man who spoke with all the rich culture of the African-American community in which he was raised, which was so foreign to me. He drank a lot too so he would sway and slur and stare. Coming from a commuter community in the suburbs to work for a church based in the downtown of a middle-American city meant that I had to do more than drive past this disorienting sight. I had to regard him as a fellow human. For the first time a problem became a person.
For a brief few months we would see one another nearly every week. Some days he would be sober and would ask after my life, and others he was too drunk to recall my name. I didn’t matter, I would be with him either way even if just to share a hot cup of tea. When it came time for me to leave America he came to see me off and we embraced and wept. I told him I would see him again soon.
Our friendship was my inspiration for a vision to see Christians befriend those whose needs were totally beyond what they could imagine. I realised that fixing people doesn’t mean you love them, and the fact that I couldn’t give him everything he needed didn’t mean I didn’t care. I could give him the time of day and he gave me his stories and that was enough.
Sometime in 2013 Pastor Joey ran into Clarence who had developed a large tumour on his neck. He seemed otherwise in good health and had plans to undergo surgery to have the tumour removed. He was never seen again.
He passed away a few months later and I never got to see him again. I promised I would and by a matter of months we missed one another. It hurts me to think that he might have faced his death believing I had lied to him. I pray in some corner of his messy heart he found hope in God and that he was relieved with warm welcome to the eternal kingdom.
I doubt he knew how he had changed my life and that would have been the last thing on his mind in the final days but I am grateful for the short time we shared.
His funeral was held at the local Methodist church where he had some kind of connection and so I suppose it might be true, what Charles Wesley wrote:
One family, we dwell in him,
one Church, above, beneath;
though now divided by the stream,
the narrow stream of death.
I sure hope it is. I’d love to see him again.
Thank you, Clarence, for the person you made me