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Word on the Street: Spiritual leprosy
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Word on the Street: Spiritual leprosy

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Spiritual leprosy

The sun sets as my friends and I walk from center city Philadelphia back to our Airbnb just north of the Reading Terminal.

With a long day of graduate school classes behind us, we look forward to an urban meal, evening conversation and a soft bed to sleep in. Our 15-block path, however, is far from blind to the many neighbors who have set up their evening home on the street corners.

A tattered preacher man works the block closest to our classroom—his voice raspy from a day of hourly sermons. At the corner, a young man has boxed himself in with cardboard signs—“even a smile helps,” they say.

The underpass of the courthouse, seemingly just architecture, is but an economic opportunity to the musically inclined to capitalize on its echo amidst the rush hour foot traffic. At the other end, a man in a wheelchair sits quietly. His cardboard sign leans inconspicuously against his prosthetic leg, which he uses for a collection cup. If you catch his eye, you might receive a gentle nod and a half grin.

The doorways of the church we pass next are just right for one human and a bag or two of belongings. Not a single one is left unclaimed. Although one man has configured a perfect privacy curtain between the pillars, I wonder if the bulls-eye red was factored into his concealment plan.

By the time we reach the 13th Street tunnel, conveniently situated beneath Hilton’s primary city hotel, Philly’s homeless neighbors have staked out their beds about every 10 to 20 pavement stones apart. An elderly woman in gray running pants assumes a meditative position on a single blue blanket. A young black man casually strolls to the remaining vacancy with large pieces of cardboard under his arm. A band of youngsters crowds together in a designated spot farther up. With a book bag for a pillow and belly for a mattress, a plump man at the end of the tunnel has already been rocked to sleep by the soft roar of the underpass.

While brokenness of this kind pretty consistently populates my world, nothing like a visit to a major city pours ice cold water on my temptation for complacency.

What I cannot get past is the acceptance from thousands who walk the metropolitan streets each day. People without homes become wallpaper, props and even entertainment against the vast hustle and excitement of the city. Each of us have our individual agenda, getting to work, making it to happy hour and even I on the particular evening described am so ready to be home. But is this even possible, I wonder, if we are all created as a single body that belongs to God.

As Paul writes in Corinthians 12:12-14, the body is one despite having many “members”—hands, feet, arms and so forth. In that same way, each of us are all “members” of the body of Christ. “For the body is not one member, but many,” he says.

All that said, how can any of us reach a destination, complete the journey or make it home without an arm, foot, leg or other assortment of appendages?

Philadelphia is a city of 1.5 million people, yet 25 percent live below the poverty line and more than 2,300 sleep on the street or in a shelter on any given night.

There are an awful lot of limbs missing from this body.

In any other practical sense, the loss of limbs, deterioration of vital organs or breaking of any part of the body would be a medical emergency. Someone would call 911, doctors would get involved, family would come to the rescue for an injury to one body. Yet, somehow, the breakdown in the body of Christ, which includes all of us, calls for minimal intervention.

A person who cannot feel their fingers, toes or recognize the problem with a wounded extremity, would likely be diagnosed with leprosy. Many times a person with leprosy cannot feel pain. Injuries, therefore, mean so little to the rest of their body that a severe case can eventually cause parts of their body to simply fall off.

Is that what is happening to our world? Are we so deeply entrenched in a case of spiritual leprosy that the pain of our extremities means nothing to the rest of the body?

As we know, Jesus spent an awful lot of time with leprosy—both the people infected by it and the “members” of his community whose pain and suffering had left them disconnected from everyone else. In Matthew 8 in particular, Jesus does what everyone else is afraid to do: he touches the leper. In that simple act he not only makes them clean, gives something to praise God, but reattaches one more valuable part of the body.

As Corinthians 12 says best, “If one part [of the body] suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”

Not one part of the body can say that another is not needed. The body is not complete in absence of a single appendage, nor can any of us be whole if any member of our body of Christ is suffering.

We are all neighbors, members of one body, just waiting to be seen.

Meghann Cotter is executive director of Micah Ecumenical Ministries, a faith-based nonprofit that offers holistic care to the Fredericksburg’s street homeless.

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