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Revised 7 December, 2009

DIRTY HANK AND FILTHY JOHN

We often look so closely at others that we fail to see the reality that is their misery.  We laugh at them, poke fun at them, go out of our way to avoid them, but in the end, we are really not much better off than their lives have become and there, but for the grace of God, go we.

See that old woman running wildly down the Streets
Gesturing and posturing for everyone she meets
Living down a life time of despair and its defeats
She's a bag lady

Hey, old dirty lady, get yourself out of my space
I don't want to hear about your needs or look at your disgrace
I'm a hypo-Christian.  I don't want to see your face
Nasty bag lady

Look into the window.  What is there I did not see
That filthy old woman looks an awful lot like me
Something changed inside me through my own hypocrisy
I am that bag lady

 

There but for the grace of God go we. Hopefully we will have the courage and compassion to see the world through their eyes and learn to be a bit more compassionate of their despair.

In my little town in Iowa, there were two brothers, Hank and John.  They were destitute and had no place to live and no means of making a living.  Both were, by the time I knew them, alcoholics and were not known to have bathed in years, not through lack of hygiene, but because they had no place to bathe.  

One thing that was unique about my small home town was that it always took care of its own.  They had their own children's home, their own old people's home and their own nursing home.  They took care of their family members, of which all were deemed to be a part and left no one to be without.  When the town learned of the plight of Hank and John, they allowed the two men to build a tiny two-room shack behind the town courthouse.  In that little shack, these men lived out their meager lives and died.  The town permitted them to use the jail later on after it was learned that they were unable to heat the shack in the winter.  The jail was in the basement of the town hall and probably could not have secured anyone if it had to, not having been used for years.  (I have no memory of anyone ever being arrested and held in that jail in all the years I lived there.)

These two old gentlemen made their meager way by shoveling sidewalks in the winter and doing odd jobs in the summer.  I can still remember Hank working on our sidewalk in the winter, bundled up in probably what consisted of every piece of clothing he owned, looking a bedraggled and red-nosed sorry wreck of humanity and remember, with regret, the disdain in which he was held.  When they died, I believe it was within weeks of one another.  After they died, the town held the obligatory auction of their remaining possessions - there being no known living relatives.  These possessions consisted of a worn out cook stove, some small personal possessions and a couple of potent smelling jugs of home made hooch.  .  .a sad ending to a rather unfortunate existence.

I cannot help but think that there, for the Grace of God, go I or anyone else.  I cannot help but remember the way in which people saw, but did not see, these men.  The poetry may be bad, but the sentiment was sincere.  If we all placed ourselves, but ever so briefly, in the place of these pitiful individuals and stop to think how they got into this state of affairs, maybe we would not be so quick to ridicule their plight or to shun their company.  I am particularly reminded of one Christmas eve at my church when one such individual was turned away because he was dirty and he smelled, an action to which I immediately objected.  As a Church, Christmas Eve is one of our holiest events.  It is an event in which people the world over join in celebration.  No one should be turned away or told they are unacceptable to be in God's company, ever.

I know that God tells us that the poor shall always be with us.  I know also that he admonishes us to do unto the least of us that which we would wish done for us in their stead.  There are, to be sure, hucksters among these poor.  It is certainly difficult to tell the poor from those who pretend to be poor in an effort to part us from our hard-earned money.  I do, indeed, subscribe that charity is a necessary evil.  I do not believe we should give indiscriminately.  If uncertain as to the authenticity of those who request your donations, donate through your local churches or through a well-established charitable organization in your area.  The best gifts to help people in need are those given from a willing heart and those gifts are never done for self-aggrandizement.  The Sermon on the Mount admonishes us to give not to the glory of man, but to the glory of God.  As far as I am concerned, the tax man can figure it out for himself.

I'm not sure where I originally intended this story to go, but I know what I meant when I wrote the poem.  The next time you see someone in despair or in need, do a random act of kindness.  They may not know why you did it, but God does and so will you. 

Keep smiling, keep praying and keep the faith.