Word in the Street: Spiritual Leprosy | Recent news


The sun is setting as my friends and I walk from downtown Philadelphia to our Airbnb just north of Reading Terminal.

With a long day of graduate school behind us, we look forward to an urban meal, an 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 house on street corners.

A ragged preacher works in the block closest to our classroom – his voice hoarse after a day of hourly sermons. Around the corner, a young man locked himself in with cardboard signs – “even a smile helps”, they say.

The courthouse’s underpass, seemingly mere architecture, is just an economic opportunity for musicians inclined to capitalize on its echo amid rush-hour foot traffic. At the far end, a man in a wheelchair sits quietly. His cardboard sign rests discreetly on his prosthetic leg, which he uses as a collection cup. If you meet her gaze, you might receive a slight nod and a half-smile.

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The church doors we pass next are fine for a human and a bag or two of personal effects. Not a single one is left unclaimed. Although a man has configured a perfect privacy curtain between the pillars, I wonder if the red bullseye factored into his concealment plan.

By the time we reach the 13th Street Tunnel, conveniently located under the main Hilton City Hotel, homeless Philadelphia neighbors have staked their beds approximately every 10-20 stones of sidewalk. An elderly woman in gray running pants takes a meditative position on a single blue blanket. A young black man walks casually towards the remaining vacancy with large pieces of cardboard under his arm. A gang of young people gathers at a designated place further on. Schoolbag as a pillow and belly as a mattress, a chubby man at the end of the tunnel has already been rocked by the soft roar of the underpass.

While this kind of brokenness fairly regularly populates my world, nothing quite like a visit to a big city pours freezing water on my temptation to complacency.

What I cannot overcome is the acceptance of thousands of people who walk the metropolitan streets every day. The homeless become wallpaper, props and even entertainment against the bustle and excitement of the city. Each of us has our individual agenda, getting to work, getting to happy hour and even I, the particular evening described, am so ready to be home. But is that even possible, I wonder, if we are all created as one body that belongs to God.

As Paul writes in Corinthians 12:12-14, the body is good if it has many “members”: hands, feet, arms, etc. In the same way, each of us is all “members” of the body of Christ. “For the body is not one member, but many,” he says.

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

Philadelphia is a city of 1.5 million people, but 25% live below the poverty line and more than 2,300 sleep rough or in shelters every night.

There are a lot of missing members in this body.

In any other practical sense, loss of limbs, damage to vital organs, or rupture of any part of the body would constitute a medical emergency. Someone would call 911, doctors would respond, family would come to the rescue for a body injury. Yet somehow, the collapse of the body of Christ, which includes us all, requires minimal intervention.

A person who cannot feel their fingers, toes, or recognize the problem of an injured limb will likely be diagnosed with leprosy. Often a person with leprosy cannot feel pain. Therefore, injuries mean so little to the rest of their body that a severe case can eventually cause parts of their body to fall off.

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

As we know, Jesus spent a tremendous amount of time with leprosy, both those infected with it and the “members” of his community whose pain and suffering had cut them off from everyone else. In Matthew 8 in particular, Jesus does what everyone is afraid to do: he touches the leper. In this simple act, it not only makes them clean, gives something to praise God, but it reattaches another precious part of the body.

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

No part of the body can say that another is not necessary. The body is not complete without a single appendage, and none of us can be whole if any member of our body of Christ suffers.

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

Meghann Cotter is the executive director of Micah Ecumenical Ministries, a faith-based non-profit organization that provides holistic care to the street-informed homeless in Fredericksburg.

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