Once a month on Saturday mornings, before the break of dawn, I’d venture out into the city to volunteer with the poor. There I met Clarence.
“Do you remember me?” he asked. He always asked this. In fact, he asked me this question every single time I spoke with him.
“Yes, Clarence, I remember you, how could I forget?! You’re an Aries! Your birthday is on April 12. And, for a person of Aboriginal descent, you have a pretty English name.”
“So, how are things?”
He’d talk about his job as a personal support worker for his friend whose legs were swollen, where and how he would get food for the next week, and what he planned on doing later that day.
After he had his breakfast, finished sipping his coffee, he’d say goodbye, ask me to remember him and venture out into the cold dark morning.
In January, Clarence died in his apartment of a drug overdose. He was alone and his body was not found until two days later.
The crack he’d bought the day before was laced with fentanyl.*
There, I was speaking with my student who was arrested for a variety of crimes, one of which was drug dealing – you guessed it – fentanyl.
“My homeless friend just died of a fentanyl overdose,” I told him.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “Fentanyl is murdering people, and I hate to think that what I was doing was part of his death, like I was in some way responsible. I don’t want my legacy to be poison and murder. But at the same time, when pharmaceutical companies sell drugs they are seen as medicine but when we do it, we’re thugs. We’re all meeting a need, that’s why we sell it. When people ask for it, it means there is a demand, and we’re here to supply it.”
Two months later, The Mission had finally recovered Clarence’s body and was able to host a proper funeral for him, which was a very honorable and dignified thing to do – it pronounced his personhood. But what really got me was that nobody had a picture of Clarence. Not one. And because of the conditions of his death, the casket was closed, leaving everyone with the feeling that, while they felt they knew him, they couldn’t really be sure. Sure it was him. Sure what they knew about him was real and true, and most importantly, even though everyone had a story about Clarence, it felt like Clarence didn’t really have a story, like he wasn’t really known.
Fast-forward to Holy Week, more specifically Holy Thursday and Good Friday.
“The line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man,” my spiritual father always says to me.
And it’s so true.
When Jesus was a child, the Theotokos and Joseph were traveling through Egypt where they encountered a gang of robbers who were asleep on the side of the road, except two, one was named, Dismas, and the other, Gestas.
Dismas arose and went over to the Mother of God to see what she was carrying in Her arms, when he saw the Christ child he exclaimed, “If God were to take human flesh, He would not be more beautiful than this child!” Dismas then turned to Gestas and said, “I beseech thee to let these persons go by quietly. Let not our comrades be roused and perceive the coming of these people.” However, Gestas did not agree, so Dismas turned to him and said, “I will give thee forty drachmas and, as a pledge, take my belt.” Gestas took it and remained quiet.
The Lady Theotokos, full of gratitude for the kindness of the robber said to Dismas, “My child will reward thee richly for having spared Him this day. The Lord God will receive thee to His right hand and grant thee pardon of thy sins.”
More than 30 years later, at the Crucifixion of Her Son and God, these two thieves were crucified on either side of Jesus.
Dismas on the right, and Gestas on the left. Dismas repented, and Gestas did not.
Does that make the thieves bad people? Is one criminal “good” and the other “bad”?
Clarence, the kind and gentle soul who tried his best to be a helpful, supportive person was like everyone else – he had a bad habit he’d indulge on occasion when he had the extra money.
Does that make him a bad person?
Inmate 001 was a drug dealer who sold the same drugs as pharmaceutical companies, except he sold them on street corners as opposed to behind the counter.
Does that make him a bad person?
I don’t think these questions can be answered, but, what all these people have in common is that they all want to be remembered.
All Clarence ever wanted was to be remembered, by someone – anyone.
Inmate 001 wants his memory to be a story of a person that made mistakes, but changed for the better – not one of a thief, drug dealer, and murderer that caused pain.
While the thief on the cross wanted to be remembered by Jesus, asking Him to, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom (Luke 23:42).”
So today, after Bright Week, and the Sunday of Doubting Thomas, I sit and reflect on what has happened, what Jesus has done for us. He, by His Resurrection, has destroyed death, baptizing the world into a state of being that is above and beyond what existed in paradise.
He has created a world with no death, a world of eternal life, in which people like Clarence do not die, but sleep only for a while.
A world where Jesus Himself comes down from Heaven, exists as both God and man, dines in the company of sick people, harlots, robbers, and the poor, IS CRUCIFIED FOR BEING A CRIMINAL, and ultimately, gives His life as a ransom in order to open unto us the gates of paradise, welcoming first and foremost the repentant thief, saying to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).”
This is our God, full of mercy and compassion, who came and turned the world upside down, bringing the extreme lowliness to the heights on high – not in this world, but the world to come.
So, Clarence, I want to let you know that, yes, I remember you. Even though my human brain doubts everything you’ve ever told me, and I’m scared to believe you’ve actually died because I haven’t seen you in awhile, nor have I verified the facts of your life or seen a picture of your face, I want to let you know that I remember you. You were a good-hearted man who, like everyone else, struggled, but you tried your best and made an impact on our community through your quiet, pleasant manner of being. I hope and pray that God remembers you, and all of us, in His Kingdom, unworthy as we are.
May your memory be eternal! Christ is Risen! Risen, indeed!
*If you’re interested in learning more about fentanyl, I’d recommend watching The Naked Truth, “Death by Fentanyl” on Netflix (season 1, episode 1).