Tuesday, February 10, 2009

don't hide behind government

Last Thursday I went to Bethel Lutheran Church for Eric Manley’s funeral. I never met Eric, but by the time I finished writing an article about him for Street Pulse, I felt like he was a close friend. Those who best knew Eric, 42 years old and homeless, said he had the mental capacity of a 15-year-old. He would stroll along State Street with a stuffed monkey Velcroed to his neck, telling jokes to anyone who would listen. He was largely shunned by the homeless community for the bothersome manifestations of his incessant yearning for love and attention. He was always making jokes at bad times and pushing people too far, but he was usually friendly. He liked to buy people presents, and liked to buy himself toys, with money he was supposed to be spending on medicine, food, and shelter. Eric had used up his time in the shelter system by September, and was kicked back to the street. On September 15, Eric spent the night on the steps of Bethel Lutheran, and never woke up. (There are all sorts of ways Eric’s death should have been prevented that night, but I’m still investigating that, so maybe I’ll write more about it here later.)

Anyway, just as I was I was falling asleep Wednesday night I jolted awake, realizing I had no idea what I should wear the next day. I texted my editor around 4am for advice, and wound up wearing tennis shoes, jeans, and a sweater. When I got to the church I was glad I didn’t go fancier. There were a few people dressed up, but I soon figured out that they were all affiliated with the church. Most of the people were homeless, with outfits ranging from a Hawaiian shirt and suspenders, to traditional African clothing, to sweats. It’s amazing how the homeless population can display so much more diversity through clothing with so much less money than upper classes do with so much more.

The room for the funeral was small, classroom-sized. Nobody was able to come up with any photograph of Eric, but a police sketch artist donated his time to draw from his corpse a picture of him smiling in front of the capitol. The sketch of Eric, propped up on an easel, watched as people took up the thirty chairs in the room, sending surprised church staff running around for more. Everyone seemed surprised; I think each of us felt like we were going to be the only ones who cared enough to show up.

The reverend began the service by asking if any of Eric’s family members were present. We all knew the answer, but let ourselves hope and looked around us, hoping to make eye contact with someone related to him who cared. But nobody spoke, and the reverend moved on with a sad smile. The reverend began by reminding us of the saying, “Leave no man behind,” and said that was what we were doing at the service. Although Eric was ignored in his life, and ignored in his death (Street Pulse was the only newspaper to even mention his death, and it is possible that the county failed to respond to 911 calls prior to his death), individuals gathered to remember his kind spirit. During the service, people sang songs, eulogized him, and whispered prayers in his name.

For a few hours Thursday morning, Eric Manley finally got the attention he wanted all his life. It’s too bad more people didn’t reach out to him before it was too late. It’s easy to gripe and groan about a bad system, and it feels good to blame problems on government. While commendable, it’s also fairly simple to fold yourself into an organization which seems to work to change the government. But what’s really brave is to act as an individual, reaching out to other individuals. Sometimes the biggest changes happen on the smallest, most intimate levels. One person reaching out to Eric to help him get on his feet would have made a bigger difference for him than shorter lines at the food pantry ever could have.

It’s important to think on a large scale, and to push for big changes, but we can’t forget that people have the power to change things without their government. Lack of government should never be an excuse for lack of action.