Whatever You Do, Don’t Learn Their Name

Whatever You Do, Don’t Learn Their Name

We all have an identity, a name we have been given, and can identify with. The connection deepens when we learn each other’s name.
Each morning I start my day in a comfortable chair, listen to the Bible, thinking about the day ahead, and making a list of tasks.
Often I look across the room at a bookshelf with some of my favorite books. Recently I picked up a couple of them and have begun to reread them. As I do, I mark any sentences I find challenging and that I think I can share out via my various social networking sites.

One of those books is by Jim Wallis. The book is Faith Works, and there is a link below if you’re interested in getting a copy.

He tells the story of a lawyer, Dale Recinella, who gets involved in helping out at a local Soup Kitchen.

About twenty years ago, I started helping out at the noon meal of the Good News Soup Kitchen in Tallahassee.

It was located in the city’s then worst crack/prostitution district, halfway between the State Capital and the Governor’s Mansion. I showed up every day in my three-piece suit to help from 11:00 a.m. until 1:30 p.m.

The staff assigned me to “door duty.” That meant my job was to ensure that the street people are lining up to eat waited in an orderly fashion. Every day, I stood at the door for an hour, chatting with the street people waiting to eat.

Before I came to Good News, “street people” was a meaningless term. It defined a group without defining anybody in particular. From the comfort of my car, my suburban home, and my downtown law office, street people were just “those people out there somewhere.”

Then, one day, an elderly woman named Helen came running to the Good News door. A man was chasing her, threatening to kill her if she didn’t give him back his dollar.

“Tell him he can’t hit me here ‘cuz it’s church property!” she pleaded.

In true lawyer fashion, I explained that Good News is not a church, but he still couldn’t hit her. After twenty minutes of failed mediation, I purchased peace by giving each of them a dollar.

That evening, I happened to be standing on the corner of Park and Monroe, a major intersection a few blocks from the State Capital and outside my law office. In the red twilight, I spied a lonely silhouette struggling in my direction from Tennessee St.

“Poor street person,” I thought, as the figure inched closer.

I was about to turn back to my own concerns when I detected something familiar in that shadowy figure. The red scarf. The clear plastic bag with white border. The unmatched shoes.

“My God,” I said in my thoughts, “that’s Helen.”

My eyes froze on her as she limped by and turned up Park. No doubt, she would crawl under a bush to spend the night. My mind had always dismissed the sight of a street person in seconds. It could not expel the picture of Helen.

That night, as I lay on my $1500 deluxe, temperature-controlled waterbed in the suburbs, I couldn’t sleep. A voice in my soul kept asking,

“Where’s Helen sleeping tonight?”

No street person had ever interfered with my sleep before. But the shadowy figure with the red scarf and plastic bag had followed me home.

I had made a fatal mistake.

I had learned her name. 

The story reminds of a Jesus parable he shared with a lawyer who wanted to know who was the neighbor he was called to love.

Jesus described his neighbor as a man that was naked, unconscious, beaten up and left for dead. Someone that you would have to move beyond professional legal language barriers to help.

Some of the lawyers I have met have built a legal wall personality around them. They may know the name of the client, but for fear of contamination, they steel themselves against the story, the deep story.

I know a policeman that had to do this too. They chose to harden themselves to the story so that they could mentally go on and do their job.

I don’t hold this against them. Dealing with the quantity and depth of trauma requires some self-care and boundaries.

Every now and then, though, God calls us to learn the name, embrace the story, and get down into the dirty ditch of a dehumanized victim because that’s the only way they can be reached, with love.

Are you willing to be vulnerable to God, to bring a ‘Helen,’ into your world?

Questions to consider and leave a comment

  • Do you fear to learn ‘the name’? Why?
  • Who has learned your name, your story?
  • What would happen if everyone learned just one person’s name and story?

Barry Pearman

Photo by Dan Dennis on Unsplash


2 thoughts on “Whatever You Do, Don’t Learn Their Name”

Comments are closed.