The Impassable Chasm

The Olbiston Apartments. Image by Peter Franchell of the Utica O-D.

St. James Mission had a very invigorating Bible study this week on Luke 16:19-31.

Our space was a bit busier this week as First Presbyterian Church, where we rent our chapel, has opened its doors, in partnership with the Red Cross, to shelter the displaced residents of Olbiston Apartments, who found themselves suddenly homeless when a fire ripped through their elevator shaft last week.

The Olbiston has been one of my regular haunts during my time on the streets.  It’s famous as a haven for folks who are down and out.  It’s often the last stop for addicts and squatters on their way to homelessness.

Commenting on our gospel passage, someone noted that the rich man was in desperate need of conversion: not to a religious faith, but to a living faith that expresses itself in deeds of compassion.  “Faith without works is dead,” she said.

A homeless man from our group said, “The rich man looked up and saw that what he had ignored for his whole life was suddenly staring him in the face!”

I added that the impassable chasm between himself and Lazarus, which was so apparent in eternity, had actually existed all along in the social gap between rich and poor.

Someone else noted that, even in hell, the rich man still maintains an arrogant sense of superiority in the way he barks out orders to Lazarus.  He says, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”  (Luke 16:24)

It’s no wonder that a miracle would do no good to convince someone like him.  He doesn’t need a miracle to convert his head, he needs love to transform his heart.  Only then can the gap be crossed.

This is often easier said than done.  A prison nurse in our group told us how he saw someone die of AIDS this week, a rare occurrence these days.  He talked about how he felt paralyzed in the face of so much suffering.  I could relate to that.  I commented on how it took me almost a week to visit the shelter after the Olbiston fire.  “What the hell is wrong with me?”  I wondered aloud.

Before we departed, a woman in the back gestured to the shelter across the parking lot.  “Hey,” she said, “don’t we have a bunch of people suffering like Lazarus on our doorstep tonight?  Why don’t we do something to help them?”  We shrugged our shoulders and looked around at each other.  After a moment we decided that the entirety of our offering this week should go to the Olbiston residents through the local Red Cross.  After worship I took the offering over to the night manager at the shelter.  One member from our group spent several hours there the next day, talking and listening.  I hope to get there next week.

The Red Cross folks tell me that the big needs right now are for:

  • Large-scale showers
  • Laundry facilities
  • Transportation to get people there

If you have access to these services (not in private homes, please), then please call the Red Cross of the Mohawk Valley at (315) 733-4666.

Maybe that chasm isn’t so impassable after all…