Russell died earlier this year. He was sixty-three, but looked ten years older. That’s what living in the woods will do to you. He was a big man physically and as I was to find out, he was a big man if you measured the kindness he showed to so many.
I wondered how Russell withstood below-freezing temperatures especially that time around Christmas several years ago when someone stole his propane heater while he was asleep in his tent. I didn’t see how he could stand the blistering Virginia heat that’s been getting worse every year.
When he got kicked out of transitional housing because of a developing illness and was forced back into the woods, I didn’t think he’d survive. I and others brought him food as he stayed in his tent. On the occasion that he had a doctor’s appointment at the free clinic, he’d have to walk down a steep ravine. His gait had become very unsteady. I can remember helping him navigate the path and supporting him as sweat poured down both of us. I felt like I was carrying Jesus and fought with my all to keep him steady. After I’d take Russell back up to his tent, I’d return to my car and cry.
Before I met Russell six years ago, I had little idea what it was like to live in the woods: extreme temperatures, rain, snow, with only torn canvass and tarps protecting you; little food, old clothes, substance abuse, physical danger lurking, assistance programs that look better on paper than they actually are. Something had happened to each person living in the woods that had landed them there. Some made it out, but many more did not.
Our church was able to move Russell and another homeless man in the woods into studio apartments. Russell’s degenerative brain condition caused him to have a short stay there before we were able to get him into a nursing home. It was the Lord at work getting him in. Waiting times in a system characterized by Kafkaesque rules, could be as long as two years. Many of the good people administering the system curse these same rules and the lack of resources that prevent those seeking help from being able to take those first, meaningful steps towards self-improvement.
I tried to help Russell and several others navigate their way through a system that promises more than it can deliver. Frustration, anger, hopelessness, roadblocks erected in what can only be seen as the result of specious logic too often are the results of seeking help. As I tried to have my friend’s body cared for in a dignified manner, it was initially dead end after dead end.
As we approach Christmas and the holiday season, thoughts turn to giving and helping the less fortunate. A lot of food, small gifts, and knit hats are distributed to people who are homeless. I know they’re appreciative, but often times that help is ephemeral like the melting snow. There are people with no homes, no jobs, no money and as I’ve seen, these conditions started as one or two events – loss of job, overwhelming medical costs – and from there the downward, often irreversible spiral began.
Maybe you won’t have a Russell; someone you just know you have to go all out to help. I never thought I would. Maybe you’ll help as you can and join other people at your place of worship, or business to reach out to those so desperately in need. Maybe you’ll find out something about yourself that makes you want to help in ways you never thought possible. Don’t let the spirit of Christmas and the holiday season end abruptly as we ring in the new year. The spirit of giving of one’s self to help another; isn’t that the spirit we want to pervade the entire year?