A drop of water spattered on my hand, although there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I looked up; a rusted air conditioner dripped from above as I laid a bouquet of flowers against the tenement building.
I’d come to pay tribute to a woman named Lanie, a homeless, wheelchair-bound veteran who’d been killed by a drunk driver. A group of friends and compassionate strangers had assembled at the intersection where Lanie had been struck. A veteran outreach coordinator led the memorial service.
“The other day, Lanie showed me photos of herself from a few years ago,” she said, pointing to a posterboard collage. “Lanie kept saying, ‘Look how pretty I was — but not anymore.’”
In fact, Lanie was stunning. She had modeled years ago, with her sculpted features and sleekly curled red hair evoking the classic look of Hollywood’s golden era.
Life on the street had aged Lanie prematurely. Sun and wind had lined her once flawless face; she had lost a leg to frostbite. Yet she had shone through her scars, seen and unseen.
A few hours after Lanie’s memorial service, I attended a wedding rehearsal. Kate, the bride, was only a few years younger than Lanie had been. She was radiant, smiling as she and her groom traced the steps that would soon unite them in marriage.
I was haunted by the contrast between the two women — one blessed by married love, and the other broken by hardship and neglect. A veil for one, and a shroud for the other.
For a number of reasons, these two lives had turned out very different. And none of those reasons changed the fact that both women, created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27), were equally loved by the Lord.
But were they equally cherished by their fellow humans?
It’s easy to love others when they conform to our expectations. We tend to favor the wealthy and successful; so did the early Church, which received a sharp rebuke in the Letter of James: “If you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves?” (James 2:3-4).
Those distinctions aren’t limited to wealth and fashion. We’re quick to discount people when we don’t like their politics, religion, language, or culture.
And when they struggle with issues like homelessness and addiction, we write them off even more swiftly. As a result, we often treat a soul like Lanie as a problem, not a person — something to be fixed, not someone to be loved.
Thankfully, God doesn’t use our yardstick.
Instead, he accepts us without condition — as is. Scripture reminds us that “in this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
We don’t need to make ourselves presentable to be worthy of God’s love, because we can’t. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” St. Paul bluntly declares (Romans 3:23).
Whether we come to the Lord with a resume or a rap sheet, our only valid credentials are his grace and mercy.
For that reason we in turn must first accept others as they are, not as we wish them to be, in order to love and serve them.
And in taking that risk, we must always remember we may never be able to change or (as we like to think) “improve” the ones we love. Our outstretched hands may never feel a return grasp but we must extend them nonetheless.
Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, recalled a Jesuit chaplain who tirelessly visited patients in grim conditions. “He couldn’t change the rickety old hospital, he couldn’t provide them with decent housing, he could not see that they got better jobs. He couldn’t even seem to do much about making them give up liquor and women and gambling,” she wrote. “But he could love them, and love them all, he did. And he gave them everything he had. He gave them Christ.”
One of Lanie’s friends recalled how he’d desperately tried to get her out of the bitter cold and into a shelter, even threatening to call the police. “You can’t force me to go inside,” she laughed, pointing to his lightweight jacket. “I’m dressed warmer than you are.”
For years, Lanie parked her wheelchair in the median of a busy, dangerous street. As cars rushed past her on either side, she remained a still point — a frustrating, beautiful call to simply love one another without condition, as is.